Essays in Idleness


Three horsemen

I wake this morning to find that some Texan has littered my electronic inbox with pictures of “Will & Kate,” in the bath suds with Prince George of Cambridge (age three months). A quick Internet check, to the filthy Daily Mirror, yields the explanation: “The pictures were taken by artist Alison Jackson who is renowned for her spoof reproductions of palace and celebrity life.”

In other words, they were faked.

This little joke was perpetrated for the day Prince George was to be christened. (Today.) It thus creates an association in the public mind, between this Holy Sacrament, & nude royals cavorting in the bath. I do not know whether this was the conscious intention of the “artist.” Nor do I need to know.

For reasons mysterious even to me, I continue boffering with email correspondents. (The term “boffer” refers to a foam weapon, used in simulated hand-to-hand combat.) In this case, adjusting the argument to the mentality of my opponent, who is viscerally contemptuous of British royalty but earnestly respectful of Tea Party media stars, I compared the case to that of Sarah Palin. She was brought down from a suddenly powerful political position by a series of foolish quotes & gestures. Each was actually scripted for Tina Fey, “spoofing” her on the television programme, Saturday Night Live.  Anyone could see the “joke” being played. But in little time the lines were being mockingly recited as if they were genuine; & soon after, in the settled conviction that they were.

Please don’t try to correct what I report from first-hand experience. This included an impromptu “debate,” on one occasion, with graduate students from a Toronto philosophy department. One young woman in particular had the Alaska accent down, & persisted in repeating the Tina Fey lines (“I can see Russia from here,” &c). Her friends were equally convinced that these fairly represented Ms Palin’s point of view. There was no correcting them. Their indifference to fact was too perfect.

Ms Palin is herself a mass-market politician, & neither genius nor sage. Yet I admired her for common sense, & a refreshing detachment from the cynicism that plagues our political life. She was reasonably honest & straightforward, unlike her rivals. On this ground alone, I thought her worth defending. Had she not been attacked so unworthily, I might myself have dismissed her as a lightweight. But in the context of the U.S. presidential election of 2008, it was worth noting that she had more native smarts, saner attitudes, more impressive personal accomplishments, & rather more executive experience than, say, Barack Obama. The one thing she lacked was the “cool” factor. She was too “authentic,” too salt-of-the-earth, had too much starch & integrity, to survive long in democratic politics. The gliberal infotainment media went urgently to work on trashing her lest she appeal to voters (women especially) over their heads. They had little trouble scoring points, however: for they can invent & widely publicize specious charges faster than anyone can refute them.

But back to my philosophy majors. On reviewing the preceding discussion, before the name Palin had been gratuitously raised, I noted that their whole view of Western intellectual history was of the same quality: cheap & extremely misleading parodies of thinkers vastly beyond their understanding, delivered with the same smug self-satisfaction. For these unpleasant children were the shallow products of our “democratized” higher education — against whom one finds oneself defending even David Hume.

It would be wrong to hold them responsible for public opinion; they are symptoms not causes of the disease. It would be wrong to assign to any human being (Obama certainly included) the responsibility for contaminating our public life with lies & misdirections. There is not & has never been a plot on any significant scale. Sleaze has never required much calculation.

“For our wrestling is not against flesh & blood; but against principalities & powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”

Note that by “high places,” Saint Paul was not referring to Caesar’s court at Rome.


The replacement of aristocratic with democratic forms of government, & with that the politicization & depravation of every dimension of human life, is an old story. We have been on this slide for well over two centuries, arguably for much longer. The basic egalitarian notion, that “I’m as good as you are,” plays to the vanity of the peasant class, that has provided the bulk in every human society: whether in their old agricultural, or in their newer industrial & post-industrial masses. Jacob Burckhardt was astute in attributing the success of the French Revolution to this: you win the peasants over by promising them the rich man’s possessions. It’s not the vote they crave, nor intellectual freedom; the peasants were never so stupid as that. The rich man’s possessions are the allurement. But more, too, the chance to get even with men so spectacularly superior to themselves, & bring them down to the common level, by means of riot & the guillotine. This is so much easier than raising oneself up.

The politician must appeal to the vanity of low human nature, through the flattery implicit in all demagogic speech. The class resentment, that is unambiguously at the heart of Marxism, is also at the heart of democracy in its less violent forms; the demand for equality because, “I’m as good as you are.” Finally it pulls down not only the rich from their stations — the landed, the responsible, the titled — but with them every noble aspiration a natural hierarchy exists to serve. In its place, & to assuage their iconic longings, the crass are provided with a theatre of “celebrities” instead; of the morally worthless, “famous for being famous.” Monarchy, where it survives, itself descends to the Hollywood level, in the vagrant hope of appeasing this mob.

Après eux, le déluge. One returns to the Age of Enlightenment to recall the prescience of those not in the bag. In for instance his old essay series, entitled The Idler, Samuel Johnson explored from many successive angles the exploitation of human vanity, at the root of all politics — the putting of one’s betters in their place, by the presumptuous, acting upon others both above & below them in actual social position. Jane Austen was another subtle student of the means, in her elegant Toryism, examining the matter at the sparkling microcosmic scale; rather than at the macro, where we see only the crudely homogenized results. Pressing against the natural order, was the spirit of “whiggery,” or Cain. To the mind of those infected by the lust for power, all nobility of aspiration is hypocritical affectation. It cannot be quantified. They have no use for it.

Families rise & families fall, over time, maintaining a balance within the larger society which, undisturbed, would last for long ages. No hierarchy depends on any individual member, in such an organic order. It would be wrong anyway to expect too little, or too much, from the representative of a moment. It is enough to keep up the pressure for improvement — by setting good example from wherever one may stand; by putting obstacles in the path of bad behaviour. Then let the failures fail. It will never be necessary to smear individuals, to make one’s envious, egalitarian point. There will always be real examples, if one has the low journalistic impulse to seek them out; or even the slightly higher impulse to expose a fraud.

I am expounding a view of society almost incomprehensible to the present day, accustomed as it is to social engineering, & organization by written law. The idea of an order legitimated by nature, of acceptance in the vicissitudes of life, of the freedom that comes with this acceptance, is foreign to us. Let me put it in terms likeliest to ignite the gasbags of equality: “A place for everyone, & everyone in his place.” For this is what I have seen in every backward, essentially joyful community, East or West.

My Loyalist ancestors were not unaware of foibles among the British ruling élite. Yet they held it better to endure, what would be resolved in the course of nature, than to turn the world over, & deliver the government into the hands of the ideologues of a humanly-engineered “Enlightenment.” It made more sense to get on with one’s life, than to meddle systematically in the lives of others; hence their old saying, “Better one tyrant three thousand miles away, than three thousand tyrants one mile away.” They were defeated, of course; but they did put up a fight for their lives & their property, before they were dispossessed. In their bones, but also in their neighbours’ eyes, they saw the menace of “Revolution.” They knew their Shakespeare; their Wat Tyler & Jack Cade. I like to think they could see Obamacare coming.

But alas the Revolution followed them everywhere, & in our contemporary world there is no place to hide from the arrogance of “democracy.” It is globalized now. The principle of unhappiness has been made universal.


I cheered myself the other day by re-reading Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse — by Nirad Chaudhuri, written in 1997, in his ninety-ninth year. There is a wonderful rant against Princess Diana, published just moments before she died. He says she never had the class to be a royal; then extends his remarks to the rest of the Spencer family, whose decline into unspeakable vulgarity he adumbrates (witness her brother, &c). It is really quite forceful.

Chaudhuri, as I have surely mentioned in the past, was pretty much my favourite Subcontinental. This is because he was an extraordinarily perceptive teller of home truths, who would never give his persecutors the satisfaction of shutting up. He had also been a member of India’s rising political class, personally familiar with all Nehrus & Gandhis, & able thus to tell us, with considerable precision, just what was wrong with them.

He waited until he was almost my age to have his first book published: The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951). It is a penetrating account of the stages by which India was suckered into misery & destruction by the adepts of Progress. The book was hardly read, but from the sharp promise in its splendidly paradoxical dedication (to the departed British Raj), it was immediately attacked. Chaudhuri was blackballed, pursued, stripped of livelihood & pension by India’s new democratic champions of “free speech.”

There is more to it than that, as always in any book by Chaudhuri. He makes me weep with nostalgia for the Calcutta of a century ago, upon realizing I had seen its ghost, three generations later. He makes one see the utterly unwestern beauty in the flat, sodden, village-ridden landscape of the vast Gangetic delta, so intensely green, sky blue, & river grey. He makes us love the very people he chastises, & chastise the very people he loves.

Altogether, he spent about seventy-five years making enemies by telling the truth about India, the whole truth & nothing but the truth; plus about twenty-five telling the truth about England, from his Bengali sense of fair play.

My personal acquaintance with him — after he had migrated to England in old age — was too brief. He was among the most inspiring men I have met: for his learning, as much as for his courage; for the poetry in his reasoning, as well as the scathing wit. He embodied, to my mind, a real nobility of spirit, formed in a very broad acquaintance with the Classics, both Eastern & Western. Perhaps only an Indian, in his position, could see the secular realities of our world with such clarity. And nothing & no one could buy him off.

Not to give away the plot, but the Three Horsemen are taken to be Individualism, Nationalism, & Democracy. Death would be the fourth, but Chaudhuri leaves it out as self-explanatory.


Don’t worry, I’m “fiiiiine,” as me mother would say. (Several have inquired. As I mentioned in the Comments to my last post, she died peacefully on Thursday: Requiescat in pace et in amore.)

My particular gratitude for the surprising number who have paid hard cash to have my mama remembered in a Mass. I do not present myself as a priest or an expert on these cosmic things, but I would think if it were possible to get someone into Heaven by main force, mama is there. Knowing her as I do, I’d guess she is likely to be embarrassed by all the attention. (As she once observed, “guilt” is for acculturated Catholics & Jews. Whereas, “embarrassment” is the Protestant thing.)

(Any word italicized in this post, is to be pronounced in an exaggerated Scottish manner.)

Please note her name, as entered on her birth certificate back in 1920, is “Florrie,” which is Scotch. She would correct anyone who called her “Florence,” which is a Limey name. As she was for many years a nursing matron, of the old starched-apron school, she had to make this correction often. The other name to avoid, if you want to stay on mama’s good side, would be “Flora,” which is Scottish enough (her grandmother carried it), but in an Anglicizing way (Fionnghal would be more correct). My paternal grandpa tried that, as a kind of Lowland compromise. He was no match for her will, however.

My sense is that what could be done was done, in the human way, & God knows that’s not good enough, but hey.

Death is anyway for our benefit. As lessons go in spiritual biology, it is the great teacher. And as a great teacher, it commands one’s attention.

I am naturally opposed to the glib school, among our modern behavioural hygienists. Guilt, regret, & mourning: all good. Even an occasional round of embarrassment. There’s a lot of crap out there on “closure” & the like: pop psychology from the moral & intellectual goons, embedded now in our statist, institutional psychology. Death is a great teacher, & should not be shut up.

It makes a rich field for humour, because it eliminates the “happyface” attitude, or better, reveals it as an exceptionally idiotic form of psychosis. For what the devil & the “happyface” have in common, is the inability to find anything funny, especially the ridiculous in their own behaviour. Laughter is their scourge; it stings them like holy water. And it is deepened in the presence of death, when the apprehension of the comic stands, often strangely reverent, just where it finds the intersection with the “tragic view of life.”

There are no eulogies at Catholic funerals, or at least, none were tolerated before the “happyface” reforms were made to the liturgy in the wake of Vatican II. The “uncertainty principle” is also a part of the “all good” in this case. We cannot know, except through miracle (recognized by the Church in the beatification of saints), that any one of our dead has been translated to Heaven. Not one of us, however intimately we knew the deceased, can speak with authority on such matters. “Thy will be done” is, to my mind, the hardest part of the Lord’s Prayer, harder than the forgiveness of transgressors. For it is His will, not mine. The theological virtue of Hope is not so easy for us humans as may first appear; & like Faith, & Love, may require more stoicism than the Stoics ever offered to dispense. It cannot be a theological virtue, except by proximity to the divine mystery, which is bottomless. It is not even thinkable, without Grace.

Notwithstanding, our Lord was given to paradox: “For my yoke is easy, & my burden is light.”

And this is certainly true of death, which, conversely, may look hard, but is actually quite easy. It requires, indeed, no effort whatever on our part. It is breathing that requires some effort. My poor mama feared death terribly, but was also the kind of guardian spirit who could keep up a front. For as she said herself, in a moment of shaking from Parkinson’s symptoms, & an internal disorientation that must be worse than pain:

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

Knowing my mother’s mind, I replied, “You will perish from it, in which case, you are well out of this ghastly nursing home.”

“I suppose you are right, dear.”

She was nevertheless irritated when I began to recite, from schoolboy memory, the reflective sonnet of Musidorus from the fifth act of the Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia:

“Since nature’s workes be good, & death doth serve / As nature’s worke: why should we feare to dye? / Since feare is vain, but when it may preserve, / Why should we feare that which we cannot flye? / Feare is more paine than is the paine it fears,” … &c, &c. For there is something about even Sir Philip Sidney’s rationalism that misses the whole point.


It is a paradox of Love that, like God, those who truly know another character must necessarily know them at their weakest. Yet only by knowing a person at her weakest, can we see & appreciate her at her strongest, too, as high mountain above low valley.

I was spooked, on Friday morning, when my telephone went off very early. “It must be my mother,” I thought, without thinking, while leaping out of bed. (At the time, she had been dead for less than eighteen hours.) We had a kind of ritual, early many a Friday morning. She would call me to announce, “I’m dying, I’m dying.”

This was less melodramatic than might seem. My sister often went up to her cottage Thursday night, & this was mama’s way of informing that I was now on call. As week followed week, it became more Gaelic. I was expected to reply:

“Oh poor mama, please don’t die today. For if you do, I will have to make arrangements.”

At which we’d laugh. For she had taught me to say that, by example. (“You must never take death lightly, my dear. There is a lot of paperwork, & you must make arrangements.”)

She taught other people much different things, for she looked upon each as a unique sensibility, requiring almost a new vocabulary. But me she took as the direct inheritor of that droll line, which passes back to North Uist in the Western Isles, from where (via the harbour at Stornoway, of course) our people floated to the New World. (Had they come from Benbecula, the next island south, across an easily swum channel, if the tide is out, they’d have arrived as Catholic refugees from the Highland Clearances, not Presbyterian refugees from the same.)

Each character a new challenge, to be dealt with in a different way.

This included a bottle to the head of a man who was violently assaulting his mistress, on one occasion; & on another, talking down a prospective rapist by persuading him she had an incurable disease. At age about six, I witnessed one of her more brilliant bluffs, that got us both out of serious danger at a remote location in Pakistan.

Likewise, during the Halifax riots on V.E. Day, back in ‘forty-five, she helped save the virginity of several young nursing students by getting responsible sailors from the Royal Canadian Navy to throw them — quite against their will — into the back of a truck. (There was no time for explanation, & they had to be driven immediately to safety, ten miles out of town.)

Alternatively, she could be very sweet, with very sweet people.

It is worth perhaps mentioning how she became an Atheist, as a nurse in training at the age of nineteen. Prior to that she had been a hard-praying, God-fearing, zealous though perhaps over-literal Calvinist girl. There was a boy in her ward, in great pain from a horrible spinal injury. She prayed & prayed for him every night. His condition got worse. So she prayed & prayed again, harder. Finally the boy died.

And to that she responded not by praying more, but by becoming very angry with God. She accused Him of conning her, of setting her up, of having lied to her throughout her childhood; of just ignoring her prayers because maybe He had better things to do. She was so angry, she told Him that He did not exist. Seventy years later I could still detect the outrage; even as I reflected that so many acquired their Atheism from some event in adolescence, which they had never outgrown.

She was taken aback when I argued, that anger with God at that level of intensity might itself be taken as sincere prayer. (One thinks of St Teresa of Ávila who said, to Jesus, that she didn’t wonder at how few friends He had, when she saw how He treated them.)

It is a mistake, a huge mistake, an unforgivable mistake, a millstone mistake, to the uttermost depths of the sea, to teach a “happyface” religion that seeks to avoid all the horrors of this world. And in this sense, I could argue that my mother was a victim of “happyface” religion, even in 1939.

To nearly the end, mama was arguing that religion is good, if it gives anyone some comfort, & makes them behave a little better than they might otherwise do. But she said it didn’t give any comfort to her, & that the only thing she knew that would make her behave any better was will, pure will. For she thought one ought to be a good person, God or no God; & that that involved refusing to do bad things, even when tempted. Moreover, that being good is not “a tight-assed proposition” — that it requires a bit of creative imagination, & that sometimes, just sometimes, doing the right thing means lie, cheat, & steal.


“Be bwave, mama.” This is what she wanted to hear from her son. She said I’d said it to her when I was a wee thing, & my father was apparently dying of a tropical disease in a very foreign country, leaving us penniless, or rather, anna-less & starving. So I pronounced it always in the small childish way. (And without mama praying, papa survived.)

She was bwave, because she was told that was the right thing to do. Sometimes one takes orders from little children, hearing no orders from above. And mama, as I said, adjusted words & behaviour alike to her interlocutor.

So here is some ground for a sneaking confidence, to put some green on the hillside of Hope. What, I have wondered, would my mama do if she suddenly found herself, not in some duet with the undertaker, but to her inordinate surprise, in the presence of Christ Crucified & Resurrected?

I daresay she would adapt her conversation, accordingly, & rather quickly acknowledge her error, as she had taught both her children to do.

For there is one teacher who is greater than Death.

My mama

Readers of this anti-blog may notice that I am more than usually idle. This is because I have a mother, one Florrie Alice Warren. She has not been at all well these last few years, & now, approaching only her ninety-third birthday, is certainly on her deathbed. The doctors gave her up last Thursday, but she is still, characteristically, fighting along with us, nearly five days later: unable to talk, or to see, but communicating by hand-squeeze gestures. I learn from a knowledgeable nurse that the most anyone has done in her condition is three weeks. So I would think in my mama’s case, five weeks is possible. Or five minutes: we shall see. But any way you look at it, her son will be distracted, & comments may wait some time to be posted.

This is the same mama to whom I may have alluded, as one of the Gaelic persuasion from Cape Breton,  Nova Scotia. Her grandmother spoke Gaelic only; her mother “both national languages” (Gaelic & Latin); my mama alas only Gaelic enough to handle standard Presbyterian hymns. (A magnificent mezzo-soprano voice, in her prime.) She has been an Atheist since the age of nineteen; of a peculiarly Calvinist sort. Her view of Catholics has always been a generous mixture of affection & pity.

So that now she cannot shut me up, we are learning to pray our Rosary together, & play some fine Catholic music for the Mass. I do the speaking.

She lost her husband five years ago (& I my father at the same time). They were a very successful couple, perfectly complementary, with nothing whatever in common. Wit I absorbed from the example of my father, but the dark Gaelic humour from mama. It was she, for instance, who taught me on leave-taking to say, “Now don’t you kill anyone!” … Then add, “Unless they are on the List.”

It was in fact her mother, who doubled as my grandma Annie Graham, who taught me from a very early age, while bouncing on her knee, the importance of song, & within that, the importance of recognizing our tribal enemies, & terminating them whenever possible. The old Scotland, much like Afghanistan in many ways, enjoyed a phase of human experience that preceded nationalism, & was really much more attractive. “Another for Hector,” as we say.

I could say more, but not now, for I am busy. I have a little request for gentle reader — Catlick, Prottie, even Chews & Muzzies if it comes to that. Pray for her. She fears death, which is why she fights it so wilfully, notwithstanding her present condition. I understand that, for I have often tried to avoid death, myself. But her denial of Christ is eccentric & unreasonable, & for all my reservations about “democracy,” I am still hoping to overcome it by sheer force of numbers.

Trust me. If you knew her you would like her. She is a character, & I am really very seriously hoping they make special arrangements for characters, up there.


Slimming plan

Let us applaud sheer genius in those United States. With concealed but effective bipartisan consensus, the President & Congressmen have succeeded in the ultimate patriotic act: shutting down most of their counter-productive Government. True, there are messy bits in the arrangement. Obamacare has not been completely annihilated, & there is some confusion over national parks. But the attention to detail is otherwise superb. For instance, an arrangement was found to continue paying the military. This is wise, because unpaid soldiers can be trouble; as Harry Truman used to say, “Read your history.” And you may need them to discourage zeal in those less well armed.

It is not really a shutdown, but a “slim-down,” according to the cooler heads. “Essential services,” including the goons who mind the borders, are left in place. There’s probably room for additional savings in Homeland Security & the like. But in broad outline it would seem the U.S. Government has been downsized to what it should have been all along, in a single brilliant stroke.

Democrats generously credit the Republicans, Republicans generously credit the Democrats, for this impressive accomplishment. For years I’ve been moaning about the Nanny State. It took a century to build, I reasoned, it might take half-a-century to dismantle. But ho: the American politicians have done it in a day. I must have been wrong about them. Let me therefore praise them now, & cheer both parties to stand their ground. Keep that “slim-down” going for months, years, decades, until everyone has forgotten what the “fat-up” was about.

The histrionic reception in gliberal media is also to be celebrated. Anything that makes the devil shriek is good, & the very foulness of their language assures us that the news has not been faked. For a few weeks they may shift the polls, but the longer the slim-down can be kept in place, the more their purchase slips on public opinion.

Verily: the demonic power, alike of journalists & terrorists, depends upon the human disposition to panic. Refuse to panic, & they are suddenly enfeebled. “Fear not,” as our Lord saith.

I should salute, too, the framers of the U.S. Constitution. On our Westminster model, no slim-down could be so easily obtained in Canada, or Britain, or India, or Australia. It required the exceptional American system of “checks & balances,” in which the checks disturb the balances, & then the balances stop the checks. The Europeans might pull it off, somehow, but even they lack the constitutional means to “mutually assured destruction.” Across Asia, Africa, Latin America we find governments that would require impossibly strenuous & purposeful acts to close themselves down. Only in America (& arguably Somalia) can it be done by casual impasse.

Buy-out scheme

Were it not for my Chief Texas Correspondent, I might perhaps have missed a squib by Diane Francis in this morning’s National Post. Fortunately that newspaper lacks an effective pay-wall, & I was quickly able to learn about this lady’s proposal to merge Canada with the United States. Full details would require the acquisition of her “controversial new book,” but the excerpt outlines the financial arrangements. Ms Francis consulted a Geneva-based accountant with extensive merger & acquisition experience, who flagged Canada’s disproportionate contribution. With only 10 percent of combined population, we’d provide 18 percent of net asset values, once our rich natural resources were factored in. That worked out to a $17 trillion settlement, or $492,529 cash for each Canadian.

The pull-out heading with the article seemed to offer this sum as a lump payment, & I must admit I considered it for a moment. That would certainly cover my rent for a while. But on careful examination of the fine print, I found: “The payout would be stretched over two or more decades.”

One thinks of the Newfoundland Lottery, whose first prize is advertised as $1,000,000. (“A dollar a year for a million years.”)


Dear Diane. It is now a quarter-century since the last time I participated in a national election campaign, selling Brian Mulroney’s Free Trade Agreement with the USA. She was among others by my side, debating Liberals, Socialists, & Protectionists of all stripes, before sceptical Canadian audiences. Much of my own time, in these “town halls,” was spent explaining some of the more extravagant claims of my excitable allies. My own pitch was simpler: to destroy as much federal bureaucracy as we can, in the time available. And if the Niagara wine industry went down with the rest of the carnage, all the better. For as I pointed out, its then leading product, with a brand name something like “Cold Baby Duck,” was drinkable only as an alternative to after-shave.

Anticipating some last-minute pushback from Canada’s smug-Left literati — the usual full-page ad in the Mope & Wail, paid for by the United Auto Workers, & signed by Margaret Atwood & her friends  — I passed round the hat & got a larger bunch of artsies with recognizable names to sign one entitled,

We Are Not Fragile!

“There is no threat to our national identity anywhere in the Agreement. Nor is there a threat to any form of Canadian cultural expression. As artists & writers, we reject the suggestion that our ability to create depends upon the denial of economic opportunities to our fellow citizens.”

It was fun. We won the election. And how was I to know that what I’d actually been selling was a vast new “free trade” bureaucracy, to cumber the perpetuated protectionist one?