Essays in Idleness


The catfish chronicles

Up here in the High Doganate, where we have been rather ill this week, to the point of seeking medical attention, Lent proceeds apace. With illness comes a form of writer’s block: not a failure to write, but instead, a failure to write anything remotely publishable. If one has been a hack journalist through too much of one’s life, there can be no such thing as “writer’s block” in the strict sense. The internal switch may be toggled to “blather” at any time, so long as the fingers can type. Attention is dangerous: they are the pieces I write at full attention that get me in trouble. Too much passion in them, and the views are all wrong. I’d still be employable today, if I had not strayed from half-attention. I have no discipline. At any moment I may suddenly focus, in a most gratuitous way. As periodical editors often warned, this is unbecoming in a journalist. Better stick to email, when the fit is on, with old and forgiving friends, who have seen these fevers before and know that they will pass.

Alas, this happened once even when I was cast as a food columnist, surrounded by the grocery adverts in a Wednesday consumer section, and accompanied by other food columnists with beats such as “Healthy Eating,” “Vegetarian Delights,” “The Organic Chef,” “Wine for Wellness,” “The Whole Earth Gourmet,” and so forth. The editor thought I could do no mischief there. I don’t know what got in me to write an essay entitled, “Why Vegetarianism is Morally Wrong,” and conclude with a Serbian sheep’s head recipe. But there you go. There was a violent attack on tofu; a mean-spirited lunge against muffin eaters; an idyllic aside on the importance of smoking in the kitchen (all the great chefs were smokers, and I touched on the symbolism of the ash that drops here and there into the finest dishes).

I persisted in this vein, and in a little time all the other columnists were threatening to quit, and the supermarket chains to withdraw their advertising. My last piece was on the advantages of wine drunk in immoderation, on the old Greek scheme, in celebration of Bacchus. It included my memoir of a long and happy weekend from my youth. Alas, it never appeared.

Meanwhile, one of the office feministas and commies — a self-appointed legislator of newspaper mores — had made a big storm over an innocent piece I had written, in appreciation of “White Trash Cookery.” She had read only the first “graf,” and thought I would be taking a kick at the welfare customers. Had she got to the second paragraph, she might have noticed my invocation of Ernest Matthew Mickler. For it was the cuisine of those pigmentally unenhanced, and materially impoverished, along Hurricane Alley, up the U.S. south-east coast, by which I was enthused. They use “oleo” (margarine) for their cooking oil, as the French use butter. Too, they interpret the contents of tins as raw ingredients, on the analogy of vegetables. The black people, in those parts, had had the wit to move a little inland, isolating the whites along the low-lying shores in a form of (breezy) island culture. But the latter had acquired from the blacks, in transit, a genius for adaptation, and a taste for hot spicing. It was a fascinating story; nothing to do with our wretched urban underclasses. “You must learn to read, Janice,” was my only defence.

You put your faith in Thomas Jefferson, or you put your faith in God. (See Leo XIII on this point.) Curiously enough, it was the subject of one of my food columns. Technically, it was justified, for there was a book of recipes from Monticello, generated, I think, by some of those Daughters of the American Revolution. A copy had fallen into my lap, and I was pretending to review it. I ran out of space before getting to that, however, owing to a lengthy digression. I have always preferred the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire — “For Queen and Country,” with a prayer, and a badge. Unfortunately, they have been in recession. But they were noble, well-dressed, proper ladies, and the Children of the Empire Junior Branch always neatly turned out and well-behaved. For dignity, and serene authority, I would pit a chapter matron of the IODE against a Dowager Empress of China. But I did allow that Jefferson had been an ardent opponent of the demonic metric system, which continues to spread havoc and confusion through kitchens across America to this day. For the envoi, I gave hints on the lush rotis to be had from the island of Nevis, birthplace of Jefferson’s rival, my esteemed Alexander Hamilton.


I, for my part, as a United Empire Loyalist, put my faith in God, with a tender regard for the British monarchy, and a passing lament for the late Secretary of the Treasury, the revolutionist who, uniquely among those “Founding Fathers,” seemed almost fully to grasp the actual limitations of political action. (Would he had understood pistols as well.) Unfortunately it would take a book or more to explain that Hamilton is to be remembered not as the advocate of central banks, nor federal bureaucracies to any other purpose, but as the sworn enemy of worldly idealism, to say nothing of the cheap political posturing that invariably accompanies it, with sufficient wisdom to see where “enlightenment” can only lead. He was, to his credit, instinctively a monarchist, too. He was an “if/then” man, not a political dreamer. All he wanted was some sound money. And grilled beef; he was a tyrant for grilled beef. That was what to put in his roti.

Too, as I was reminded this week by a piece in Forbes magazine (the column of a certain Thomas Del Beccaro), he opposed any Bill of Rights, whether federal or state. That makes anyone a hero in my cookery book. All such Bills are sophistical, and invite legalistic twisting. Hamilton understood: he was British like that. A written Bill of Rights turns the corner, from everything is legal unless the law says no, to nothing is legal unless the law says yes. A government without the power to abrogate freedoms has no business guaranteeing them. So render it powerless; only a fool trusts a keeper with his freedom. From the moment such a guarantee is declared, verily, our liberties are now under siege. The USA Constitution descended upon a people who had enjoyed unparalleled individual freedom for a century and a half, under the British Crown. In response to the puling, demagogic oratory of colonial politicians, they exchanged this for a system that could ultimately deliver Obamacare. (So did we, incidentally: pshaw on “democracy.”)

What we need is to abrogate all the Bills and Charters, and restore the (mediaeval) Common Law — to uphold the rights of the defenceless Little Man against the Monster State, and all other organized powers contriving to oppress him. But that is not all we need, for outside of Lent, we might also hanker for a grilled beef roti. And with plenty of scotch bonnet in the sauce.


This week’s principal culinary accomplishment, up here in the High Doganate, was a catfish curry. Unfortunately it was made at half attention, I doubt that I could reconstruct the receipt. But, you know: coriander, fennel, cumin, chillies. Lots of garlic and ginger. Fresh, if you can find them, lemon grass and curry leaves, and those wonderful “rampe” or pandan or screw-pine leaves that I found even in Parkdale, ground up in oil in a bottle from Sri Lanka. Goes with yellowed rice: ghee and ground onions, more leaves, turmeric root, cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, and whatever else I put in.

Oh, and coconut milk. How could I forget about the coconut milk.

Not everyone likes catfish, I am told; they go into fits about “bottom feeders,” and of course, some of them die. But what can you do? Cars kill more, and even though nobody eats them. So, if you are the neurotic type, say an Ave before you dig in. To me, catfish are wholly admirable creatures, like goats. They feed on the underwater grasses, but also on anything else they can find. They can be insolent, like goats, or like some of my favourite women. We call them pla mong in Siamese. (The catfish.) Slithery and scale-less; also easy to gut. Catch them with nets: they’re too smart to take hooks. I love their droll expressions, as if they’ve been listening to heretic eels all day and they’ve had enough. They should put one on tabloid TV, to chew the riparian cud with one of those angry white males. Let the fish tell us what he thinks really happened to Flight 370.

They were so plentiful in the rivers and klongs, the poor people ate them for a staple. (The catfish. In Siam.)

“There is fish in the stream, and rice in the fields,” as we say (in Siam). Except, during the monsoon, when there is rice in the stream and fish in the fields.

I cannot say enough for catfish (also, pan-fried, or roasted on the fire).

Do you know that they go quite crazy for Wonder Bread?  There is a colony of them, that swim under Little Irene’s Swamp House, up there by Penetanguishene, where I have house-sat from time to time. You get your Wonder Bread from the grocery shelves at the local gas station. Since it is not suitable for human consumption, you break it up and toss bits on the water. Great convulsions of catfish thrash joyously as it lands. Some will leap, and even squiggle a few inches onto a mudbank to fetch a piece. I have spent hours, fattening them in this way, and feeling happy, and at peace, like a catfish on one of his more philosophical days.

Four quatrains

We (and I still sometimes use this plural to indicate, “all of my personae, considered as a choir”) were asked only yesterday, by a gentleman who had previously been asking about Stefan Zweig, to describe the degree of our aloofness from current events. He (the emailer, not Herr Zweig, who has been dead these last seventy years) is, I suspect, vexed by this question himself. I know him as a man who has been somehow mixed up in high counsel to the American Republican party. And like me, he seems to realize that the Americans have a two-party system: the Democratic Statists versus the Republican Statists. (Up here in the far north we have five or more Statist parties.) That, to my mind, is what “democracy” has always been about: competitive statism.

But, ho, I am ignoring his question:

“Do you consider yourself to be in exile, imposed or self-imposed? I mean in temporal affairs, not the exile from the divine that is this life.”

The glib answer, supported by a Russian proverb (“A man can do most good where he was born”), is no, I cannot be an exile because I live in the same city wherein I was born. (It is also where one can do the most damage.) True, I was whisked away by my gypsy parents at a tender age, and several times having returned later I went off again, vowing never to come back, but here I am once again in the Greater Parkdale Area, enduring the general decline.

Yet even temporally, the question is a good one. By chance, several other correspondents (for I have a Commentariat ye know not of) have asked me recently some similar question. It must be in the air. To what extent do we even care what is going on around us? Granted, we could anyway do little about it, for if we devoted our entire lives to meddling in some way, what could we expect to achieve? I have friends of long standing who have tried this, and are only now beginning to give up; who have tilted against the proposition, “What profiteth a man if he gain the whole world, but forfeit his own soul?” And unlike Saint Thomas More’s interlocutor, they didn’t even get Wales.

One of my correspondents, a lady from the Canadian far east, posed or rather insinuated the question in terms of “reality” or “realism.” That is to say, look at the world as it is, and discard every illusion that might be employed in romanticizing what you see there. That still leaves plenty of room for meddling. We could, as Voltaire said, when he was playing Cicero in opposition to Leibniz, “cultivate our garden.” Some exiles are able to do that. But can one be a proper exile with such property as a garden? Or if, as Cicero, we get carried away, and add a house to shelter our library, too?

There is a paradox, which I propose to stare down. As I’ve written before, I hope without originality, almost everyone is an exile today. T.S. Eliot (in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1948) observed the tendency of modern education (which includes media) to adulterate and degrade everything it touches, concluding, in a bad mood, that we were “destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” And we are there now: for even those who occupy houses must be, should they wish to continue earning a living, ready to move at short notice.

The “exile” in such circumstances is more likely to be the person who refuses to move. By this refusal he makes greater and greater distance from his neighbours. But then, the modern state can expropriate anybody: we no longer enjoy the reliable protection of e.g. the Common Law; and our human rights have been, such as they were, collectivized. (This, too, is among the inevitable, barbarizing products of “democracy,” as all other kinds of totalitarianism.)

We have been re-interpreted as “human resources,” when once upon a time we were human beings. Another correspondent, in Ottawa, who actually works with computers, notes that really she works for them; and that in every working environment of which she is aware, the people are subsidiary to the machinery. We are exiled, thus, from our own nature.

And we are exiles whether we want to be or not, so the question may now be moot. Any attempt to answer it is playing with illusion. True, in a certain sense, we were always so, for at any moment any of us might involuntarily “push off” and die. But again, we were not considering the question from the transcendental angle, only in worldly terms, and those terms have been changing, “progressively” as it were. My parents, and even more my grandparents, did not consider themselves to be exiles, even when forced by external circumstances to change houses. They still felt a certain continuity within the society around them, and a quite personal belonging to it. Do I?

As we used to say in hippie days, “Reality is for people who can’t handle drugs.” … Well, as may be discerned from my last Idlepost, some of us weren’t hippies then, have become more like hippies now. (Was gentle reader ever a hippie?) … I continue to resist medication, however.

From the towering height of sixty years, I see that “realities” have come and gone. The fair certainties of merely half a century ago have evaporated during my lifetime — reasonable certainties, for instance, about what was right and what was wrong — and there is no foreseeable prospect of restoration. Which is not to say the world was not in a fine mess a half-century ago; but the sands of atomization have become much finer and more readily shifted by every passing breeze. Who is not an exile in a “culture” which does not recognize, for instance, the sanctity of human life? Or the indissoluble nature of families? I have lived to see the terms “father,” “mother,” “brother,” “sister,” “uncle,” “aunt,” and so forth, methodically and retroactively stripped from all provincial legislation; and in parallel, the creation by the same “reforming” legislators of new human sexes. Who will bother warning of the cliff? We are already in the free fall of a demonstrable insanity.


Which puts me in mind of the quatrains of my youth. Friedrich Hölderlin, for instance, wrote in his madness (if gentle reader will accept translation, and tolerate my old-fashioned habit of quoting from memory):

The lines of life are various, they diverge and cease,
Like footpaths to the mountain’s utmost ends:
What here we are, elsewhere a God amends.
With harmony, eternal recompense and peace.

Good, but perhaps too fatalistic, especially in a poet who once glorified Greece. On the other hand, I have been assured that every Zen Buddhist Japanese, when travelling, carries in his heart:

Really there is no East, no West.
Where then is the North, and the South?
Illusion makes the world close in;
Enlightenment opens it on every side.

At least, I assume it is the other hand, and that the author of the Japanese quatrain was sane. I prefer the Buddhist “Enlightenment” to the French; I believe it leaves fewer corpses. It also provides the exile with a remedy against the homesickness that may sometimes afflict him. But when it comes to this, there remains a quatrain by Li Po, known, apparently, to every waiter in a Chinese restaurant:

Above my bed there is pale moonlight,
So that it seems like frost on the ground.
Lifting my head, I see the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I dream that I’m home.

He was a real exile, and my far eastern correspondent immediately replied with his verses on “Madly Singing in the Mountains,” written after his banishment to Hsun-yang. (It was worse for Po Chü-i: he was removed from Hsun-yang and sent to Chung-chou.) Li Po observes that his mad singing attracts the curiosity of monkeys and birds, and that by removal to a remote location he is freed of the embarrassment of becoming a laughing-stock to his fellow humans. This returns us by way of Szechuan to the West, by the open road, and to a poet I have mentioned before, Michael Roberts. It is yet another quatrain long carried in my own heart:

Coming out of the mountains of a summer evening,
Travelling alone;
Coming out of the mountains

Roberts was an earnest man who, as I explained in that old Idlepost, devoted earnest attention to the fate of worldlings in books with such titles as, The Estate of Man. He died young, alas, but as the economic, political, social, and environmental “problems” he identified from the world of the ‘thirties were exactly the same as they are today, minus the debilitating complexities we have added, I don’t see that his living longer would have been much use.

Exiles from Heaven we most certainly are, but from this terminal ward of a planet we can escape in only one way. To reply to the question as directly as I can, I would therefore quote my own motto, taken from the preamble to the Salon de 1846, by Charles Baudelaire, addressed affectionately “aux bourgeois“:

Vous pouvez vivre trois jours sans pain; — sans poésie, jamais!

Labour law

Recently I attended the wake of an old friend, a certain Randall Telford, who was so unwise as to predecease me. He was a labour lawyer, and usefully so from my point of view, for he brought a charge of “constructive dismissal” on my behalf before a former employer, so nicely that it never went to court, and ended in pints all round. After which he failed to send me a bill. And when I asked after it, he said that paperwork bored him, and that he made too much money anyway, would I be so kind to forget about it.

Randy was a bad Catholic (by his own admission), and to be perfectly frank, a bad poet. On the other hand he was a first-rate motorcyclist, and a contant reader of fine literature. He was also a rather gifted “mate” — from the old school of male companionship, that dates back even before tree-hugging. He taught law, too, in some kind of college, to innumerable pretty young female admirers, and indulged many other agreeable hobbies, including a recent one of growing his hair, a beard, and dressing like an ageing hippie. He hadn’t been a hippie in youth; it was “ageing hippie” that appealed to him. It has begun to appeal to me, too, though the term I prefer is “rubby-dubby.”

Much else was mentioned by an interminable succession of perfectly charming eulogists at his send-off. I think I’d sat through thirteen of them when the em-cee mentioned just five more left until the buffet, and I resolved to brave the winter for an extended smoking session. None of these mawkish elocutions had, however, mentioned Randy’s membership in a secret society to which I also belong. It is informally called the “Borborygmatic Society,” but at formal gatherings, “The Old Fart’s Club.” One is inducted by invitation only, and has no right to refuse. Resignations are also neither permitted, nor advisable. The society consists chiefly of lawyers and effete literary types. We quietly control everything you never hear about in the media. Please never mention the existence of this society to another living soul.

Alas, Randy was one of those health freaks, given to jogging and jumping and eating his salad and not smoking and hardly ever drinking to excess. He was a few years younger than I: none of those people ever makes it to sixty. I wish I could have made him see sense.

Requiescat in pace. The only reason I mention him is from grief, and to justify my headline. For as Randy once said, labour law is the most boring subject ever devised by man. It attracts its practitioners for no reason at all. Nothing could deter a reader more effectively than putting a title like “Labour law” over the top of it. He recommended that tactic, for hiding the most extraordinary revelations in plain sight. Dear Randy. Ave atque vale!


A priest writes, apropos my column today over at Catholic Thing, that he is still waiting for a papal social encyclical that expounds II Thessalonians 3:10-12. He is not expecting it any time soon, however.

Gentle reader will recall what Saint Paul had to say:

“When we were with you, we gave this command: that any man unwilling to work should not eat, either. For we hear that some of you are meddlesome enough, but doing no work at all. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and earn their own keep.”

News & the weather

On a sour note of feigned optimism, I post this upon the vernal equinox, a cold blustery miserable overcast day in Parkdale, under plausible threat of blowing snow, after the coldest winter in memory. Spring is not yet in sight. But one must take the longer view, in which these parts were for millennia under more than a mile of ice — so that life on the surface would be the colder for the altitude — and note that the accumulation towards the next glaciation remains quite modest. For all we know the summer may still take it away. Eventually a summer may come which fails to do so, and at the first of those we’ll start moving south. (Our agent Barraco Bammer has done a fine job of Canadianizing the territory we shall eventually occupy.) No one in his right mind up here at this latitude ever feared global warming. Which isn’t to say a plurality are not in their right minds. But the sales pitch for further massive public globalwarmalarm and environmentalcase funding has been undermined.

Simple, but irrefutable, is my own theory of climate change. The Weather Fairies were monitoring the hockey stick diagram and other spuriosities and shams from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, various third-rate redbrick universities, the London Met Office, &c. Human hubris has long irritated them, and that was the last straw. They decided to punish us so unambiguously that no intelligent person could pretend it was “chance.” We may not be in the cusp of a new Ice Age — no such thing is humanly predictable — but take note when the Weather Fairies tell you to chill out.

My other concern, just now, is that sooner or later interest rates must rise. This comes from inattention to the Economy Fairies, with whom we should never toy, for they can become spiteful quicker and on less cause than the Weather Fairies. Everything I know about USA and the West tells me the mild recovery is fake, that the stock prices are illusory, that it all hangs on very cheap money, and that government accounts everywhere seriously understate the aggregate debt. Add a few points to the interest rate, which the Economy Fairies could do in a blink, and the game is up. It could only be played for so long, and I can’t see bottom when it is over. (But then, bottom is usually what we don’t see.) The most worrying part is their delayed action. This most likely means the Economy Fairies have moved beyond routine spite, and are saving for a bigger catastrophe.

I have consulted several reasonably successful investors on this, asking for the upside. None could provide one. Their suggestions range from purchasing shares in gold and silver mines, to stocking up on tinned food. There was also some advice on guns and ammo. This would not be for self-defence, alone. Hunting skills will also be important in the new economy.

Which takes us to the loss, this week, of two of my favourite living people. One was Clarissa Dickson Wright, an advocate of the hunt, indeed a magnificent woman who consciously sacrificed her media career, once she had stored up enough eating money, by outraging every right-thinking, gliberal person in the United Kingdom, right across the field of political incorrectitude. Dead now, at the tender age of sixty-six. (Her health had been impaired by the quinine in the tonic water she poured to excess into her harmless gin.)

I met her many years ago in her cookery bookstore in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh: it was love at first sight. A woman of formidable girth, and heroic appetite, she could drink even Scotsmen under the table. She had, too, one of the sharpest minds of her generation, and easily the sharpest in the British media. A life-long indifference to nonsense had led her from one adventure through another, including the inheritance and purposeful dissolution of a large fortune. Her work on behalf of red meat, butter and cream, as one of the “Two Fat Ladies” — along with her devoutly Catholic colleague Jennifer Paterson, also of sainted memory — will stand as one of the two great accomplishments of the BBC. (The other was of course Monty Python.) I imagine them ascending Mount Purgatory together in Miss Paterson’s motorcycle with double-wide sidecar. “Fat, loud, outspoken,” according to one of the more respectful obituaries, they were both examples of what I adoringly call “insolent women.” (An essay on this topic may follow, in due course.)

Meanwhile, in India, and at the tender age of ninety-nine, we have lost a delightful opponent of the hunt, in Khushwant Singh. He was as vociferous against the shikaar, or princely pursuit of big game, as Ms Dickson Wright was champion to the fox hunt. His column in the Hindustan Times, entitled, “With Malice Towards One and All,” will be missed up here in the High Doganate. He kept it up to the eve of his death; it was always entertaining. I had also the honour of meeting this man in passing, and found him as most vicious satirists, a kindly and empathetic soul.

His books are all readable, for all are light and slight, especially his celebrated two-volume History of the Sikhs, in which the scholarship is almost indetectable. Khushwant (my apology for this familiarity, but India is over-supplied with Singhs) was an agnostic, and nearly a vegetarian. He subscribed to the ancient subcontinental notion of Ahimsa: that we should not kill people or animals gratuitously, and should by preference go about most tasks in a non-violent way. But then he supported “euthanasia”: in the Jainist or Eskimo manner, i.e. oldies who have become a burden should find a way to push off. Fortunately, except a bit of wheezing, he never found himself in that situation, and remained a profit centre to his extended family. Verily, all of his views were mistaken, on everything, so far as I could make out; he even supported Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency.” But notwithstanding, what a lovely man.

The day after

Well, I can come out of the High Doganate now, I think St Patrick’s Day is over. Toronto, or as I prefer to call it, the Greater Parkdale Area, was once well supplied with essentially peaceable, law-abiding bona fide Irish immigrants who went to their jobs in the morning, and to Mass on Sundays if not other days, and you knew where you stood with them. Owing to the passage of several asteroids, they have been replaced by a new species of surely fake Irish, wearing silly hats and putting green dye in their beer on the 17th of March, and while the great majority of these are entirely non-violent, you’d best not go near a pub that day. Any pub: for on that day even Outer Mongolians seem to think they are Irish, and behave according to some unedifying national stereotype. Best to stay home, and drink tea, and read Dostoevsky.

A correspondent kindly favoured me with a collection of Irish sayings for yesterday’s occasion, which I of course deeply mulled. In reply I offered this quick batch of Scots proverbs:

He has a hole aneath his nose.   

A penny hained’s a penny clear, and a preen a-day’s a groat a-year.
It’s past joking when the head’s aff.
Twa blacks winna mak a white.
Sodgers, fire, and water soon mak room for themsels.
God help the rich folk, for the poor can beg.

The first step to virtue is to love it in anither.
Nae man can thrive unless his wife will let him.
An idle brain is the deil’s smiddy. …

Gentle reader is requested to memorize them. All will prove pertinent to the disquisition ahead.

Only the first of these came from my mama (may she rest in peace), the rest from perusing the Scots literature, such as it is. And I have a cheat: a book of Scottish Proverbs (compiled by Andrew Henderson about 1805, rev. James Donald; Glasgow, 1882) with which, should battle ensue, any number of additional may be pressed into combat. (“Another for Hector,” as they say.)


We were discussing marriage the other day, from the sacramental angle, as it has been disintegrating in Ireland, Scotland, England, America, across the European continent, and elsewhere. To a Catholic mind, the sacrament stands apex to a wide range of human experience — that between a man and a woman — but the human experience in itself comes to something, and has been worked with, in itself, by every known culture and through all religious traditions. It can be considered, as Thomas Aquinas would consider it, in its philosophical as well as its theological aspect, by the light of the human reason, with which we were by our Creator endowed.

Why do so many marriages fail, once the social and religious pressure that used to help hold them together is withdrawn? For if the full problem is to be properly addressed, it must be considered, too, from this low angle.

My late wise mama, from whom I should have been taking notes, once provided the formula: “Never get married because you want to be together. Only get married because you can’t be apart.”

The advice was of course not original to her. It had belonged to many generations, in the free countries, among their free classes, where marriages were not strictly arranged. But from my own generation down, it seems to me that it is now omitted. It is often nevertheless understood, and what seems like “luck” may operate, but the idea in itself is not consciously taught, not driven into the young until they cannot forget it. The alternative idea, rather scientistic in the sense that it honours “experiment” as an end in itself, is that we should home in by trial and error. Sometimes we are invited to be fully rational: very poor advice indeed for the young, when they are hormonally challenged.

By now, among those young who are consciously Catholic, there is some unintended additional confusion. I will have my wrists slapped here for resisting what is now received as almost catechetical instruction. The young are exhorted to pray on the matter, a practice of which I wholeheartedly approve. Christ, and Mother Mary our Queen of Hearts, most certainly come into the judgement, and can be reached by earnest prayer. But their operation cannot be confined to the prayer stall. It must be put into service in the rough and tumble of everyday life. The mistake is to assume that marriages can be “arranged,” by miraculous cosmic forces — when these will only ever be discerned in retrospect, not in prospect.

Hence, to my mind, the high failure rate, even in marriages between “traditionalists.” They have put too much emphasis on the abstractly and externally “divine,” not enough on what is divine within, or in terms of, the human; on “rules” in the plural beyond rule in the singular. They are not living in a culture wherein “arranged marriages” are easily sustained. They should look every seemingly heaven-sent gift-horse in the mouth. They must instead go out in the rough and tumble and find mates for themselves. Or better, let the heavenly forces secretly find them, while they are not actively looking.

We are given to recall a very simple moral rule: so simple that anyone can remember it, and in any situation. It is the crucial rule, from which all lesser rules in this subject are derived. In a word, it is chastity. My own quite unCatholic mama would have affirmed this. The prospectively married couple are fatally blocked from discovering whether they might actually be compatible — through all the ages and stages of man — from the moment their “relationship” has turned sexual. And if this happens on the second date, they may never know each other at all: since first dates are, by surviving custom, given over to projecting illusions.

This has incidentally to do with why the Church must hold the line on contraception, as Paul VI did so courageously, even against the mockery that would be offered to him back in 1968. He had thought it through, not only from the divine angle, but from the human. That is what makes Humanae Vitae such a profound document: as I realized on carefully reading it, long, long, before I became a Catholic myself.

Almost any young, hormonally loaded couple can imagine themselves inseparable for a moment, while they are in bed. It is rather the aspect of friendship, within marriage, that they will overlook. And to make this more complex: the friendship that can exist between a man and a woman is itself different in kind from “friendship” in the generic; for it is in itself more in the nature of eros than amicitia, or rather, the two are mysteriously fused. It goes deeper than animal copulation; raising even that to a level that is not merely animal any more. Which is why, incidentally, the Church has always allowed marriage between those of years so ripe, that child-bearing can no longer come into the expectation. And why she has also smiled upon “natural family planning,” which unlike the artificial kind, involves conscious restraints between two persons, who have become one flesh.


On the other hand, I think the Church has always looked suspiciously, and rightly so, on the cult of “the single.” The world does contain natural bachelors and old maids, of no special religious calling, just as it contains other less mentionable kinds of loners. Luck, including bad luck, may come into this, too. “No one ever asked me,” was the response I used to get when, as a boy, I queried certain old ladies. The alternative reply would be given by the ancient photograph of a young man in uniform, atop the piano. “He died in the War.”

Christ can work with anything, but that does not make all stations equal.

There is, both in secular feminist life, and in traditional religious, today, a specific cult of single women. That is, the state of singularity dressed up as a quasi-religious calling. I specify the sex, for I have found nothing similar among men, who for whatever reason seldom ideologize or theologize their single status. My guess is that this is undermining marriage to a greater degree than anyone realizes. A great show is made of the spiritual opportunities available to those who live alone. But if there were a religious calling, I doubt that it would be to contemporary single life.

There is danger in being too much alone, which some may try carefully to avoid through church and acquaintance. Family life is full of distraction, but it is also full of spiritual opportunities not available to single persons; in a sense monastic life is also familial in nature. The aspect of Christian marriage: that intimacy founded not only between two united in mutual regard, but in the aspiration in each to get the other into heaven, is lost on our contemporaries; the daily mutual spiritual direction, even more lost: the masculine and feminine spirituality which balance and even mutually correct. As well, there is discipline in family life, from responsibilities that go beyond one person; for that person is required to put spouse and children and perhaps the surviving oldies ahead of himself. I think the Church has always looked upon those who are decisively “single” as self-indulgent, even self-obsessed; as laws unto themselves under no vows or regular external observation. And today, even if she had consistently good spiritual directors, she would not have enough to go round.

But “not wanting to be alone” is a very poor excuse for a “relationship.” However mild, it is a form of fear. Whereas, love is active, directed, positive, even in its most intimate stillness. We know that from prayer; it is also true “in life.” We are between Scylla and Charybdis here.


“Most men struggle more with being alone than women do,” according to one of my sage informants, a single woman now entering middle age.

There’s a fine essay topic, in itself. It is probably true, with the usual one-in-five exceptions. Speaking as the thumb in this digital arrangement — the male who finds himself living singly after the usual catastrophes of the post-modern era, and coping for all that reasonably well — I think of two things I knowingly sought, for having seen in my own parents, but did not find. One was the intimacy that could only exist between a man and a woman; the other the inspiration that comes to a man from the love of a woman. Both have been subtly marked as acts of selfishness on the part of the man: his need to love, and his need to be loved. In my sons’ world, both have been “moralized” by some version of the feminist ideology nearly out of existence, and I watch the young men wither from it.

Many are actually called to the celibate life, in both sexes, and I think in present circumstances the Church has great difficulty accommodating them; and they have difficulty accommodating themselves. Do women handle this better than men? Probably. But from the little I know, most are involuntary members of this class: for most truly wanted children.

It is probably easier for a man to find a woman than for a woman to find a man, under present circumstances: or so I am assured by many women. For a woman cannot be a woman with the post-modern male: he has had the “paternalism” — the good husband qualities — kicked out of him before he has even grown up, and so he stays not-grown-up forever. He is a Lothario, a “playboy,” and given his failure at that, more usually just a pornography addict. The women in turn become more masculine not only from the dictates of feminism, but from what those dictates have done to the men. Women are now stuck playing by men’s rules in “the economy,” with which only a power-hungry few feel comfortable; and as I’ve been told by more than one female corporation executive, who may never be married, it is wives these successful working women want, not husbands: someone to take care of “home.”

“Home” is here a very large concept. It includes that sense of place, also overlooked in the rush of our economic and social “progress.” It includes many, many other things, which are now disparaged. We live in urban caravans, always ready to move. As a person who has actually “travelled the world,” and therefore feels homesick for quite a few places, I can only triangulate to the original condition, and see it in old photographs of a certain farm near Louisbourg in Cape Breton — where my mama’s people once settled, and to which they were rooted for a century-and-a-half. (Nothing left of that now but a collection of fading tombstones overgrown by woods.)

Against this, we pose the attraction of working nine-to-five, which is I think no one’s natural calling — male or female.

Christ is Christ and this earth is transient. We will all be dead soon enough. But I do feel wistful for what has been lost, and desolate for the terrible spiritual cost of what has been lost, and could take centuries to recover. In particular, that outwardly recognized hierarchy of Love, which made among other things the Church more sustainable.

Biblical exegesis

One of the most useful passages in the Bible is in Saint Peter’s second general Epistle (3:16, if I may be so pedantic). There are quite a few parallel passages, but in this his second “encyclical,” our first Pope says explicitly that there are passages in Scripture hard to understand. The ignorant and the unstable are inclined to twist these, and it is sad because they do it to their own destruction. It seems a fair remark to me, for I have often seen this happen, and as an ignorant and unstable person myself, to say nothing of immodest, I have sometimes felt I knew better than the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church could know through twenty centuries of careful exposition. In other words, I still have Protestant tendencies: though I find with age they are fading away.

“I don’t know” is a good answer, especially when it is the truth. This is more often than one might at first suspect, for in what appeared straightforward questions of Biblical exegesis, I have often discovered that I were a fool. So is everyone dependent upon translations, and too, those who believe they know the original tongues quite well, for each contained traps enough for their native speakers. Language provides a gloss on experience, but often the gloss is on closer examination less clear than the experience to which it refers. Trying to reconstruct the experience from the gloss — or as we might say, the full reality of Christ from the Scriptures — may require more than the linguistic and archaeological knowledge supplied even through our drive-in post-secondary institutions.

I was thinking this when some members of my Commentariat were discussing the passage, “And I say to thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The question was about what the gates of hell would be doing — surely they will not be attacking anyone. For what it’s worth, my first two cents would have been to observe that πύλης could mean “gates” quite literally, but in the Greek of that age meant also by extension some power or authority. Also, that in my Peshitta, or Aramaic version of the Scriptures (and Aramaic was, apparently, the language in which Jesus was originally speaking), the verb equivalent to the Greek κατισχύσουσιν which suggests “prevail,” comes through to English better as “withstand,” so that the whole clause may be translated, “the doors of Sheol may not shut upon it.” Now, the Greek verb was itself future, indicative, and active. We would thus indeed be discussing what happens to the gate, and not what the gate will be doing.

The whole passage, somewhat mysterious by the time it is rendered into English, and perhaps a little philosophical and abstract at the edges of the Greek, becomes crystal clear in the Aramaic. Or so I am given to understand: for I am frankly unable even to give taxi directions in that language.

Scripture may be twisted, but the Church cannot be stopped. And Christ, whose Church she is, may go anywhere He pleases, even into Hell, as he demonstrated. This — and please correct if I am wrong — is consistent with what the Church has taught through all the intervening centuries: that there is a hole in the Enemy’s defences. Verily, the Enemy’s defence is finally one big hole; but now I am going a little beyond Scripture, into scholastic territory.

Sometimes we may find that the hole has even wormed into our Church. But I wouldn’t panic: holes have a tendency to close over time. They lack structural integrity. And it is best to avoid arguing with a hole, or otherwise jumping in. For in Christ’s mysterious words, “Resist ye not evil.” By doing good instead, we fill the ground around and assist the hole in collapsing. On the better days, true Authority arrives with the plug.


The paragraphs above were not inspired by Scripture nor Tradition, incidentally, but by a couple of heretical (Mormon) missionaries who got into my building, ignoring the warning against solicitors at the front door. They have just been seen off by my magnificent superintendress, aptly named “Angelina,” who revels in her title as “the Scottish harridan.” (And did she put the fear of God into them!) My task was simply to keep them talking until Angelina arrived. Biblical exegesis was the trap.

That age shall not weary them

It is true, today is the first anniversary of the election of the present Pope. Fortunately no one asks me to appear on talk shows any more, where, given as little as five minutes to blather, I’d be sure to say something wrong. God bless Pope Francis! May he become the very embodiment of our Scripture and Tradition, our lion standing guard, that not one jot nor one tittle shall in any wise pass from our Law!

Meanwhile my thoughts turn to Jonathan, a large tortoise to be found on the grass of Plantation House in St Helena’s Island. (They have also Myrtle, Frederika, David, and Emma.) According to the BBC, that unimpeachable source of daily news, Jonathan has now reached the age of one hundred and eighty-two, which must make him our oldest named land animal. Only one hundred and thirty-two of those years can be documented, however. He arrived, as others since deceased, fully mature from the Seychelles back in 1882. For a tortoise of that kind, “fully mature” implies about fifty years of age. Therefore he might be a little younger, or perhaps a lot older. It is speculated that the tortoises of this species — Aldabra Giants — can, under ideal conditions in which sailors never make them into soup, live to the quarter of a millennium.

Jonathan is well-treated on those grounds, even spoilt. The curious are kept at a reasonable distance, and he is conscientiously attended to. No Governor of St Helena could want Jonathan to die on his watch. Notwithstanding, the animal shows some effects of age. He has cataracts (but also a very powerful beak, so must be fed with caution). He may have lost his sense of smell. But his hearing is extremely sharp, and he doesn’t miss a meal call. He is also a perfectly affectionate creature, who loves to have the back of his neck scratched. More than affectionate, to the younger female giant tortoises, we are given to understand: a noisy and aggressive Priapus.

Thanks to BBC’s sidebar, I don’t have to count: Jonathan has outlived eight monarchs, and fifty-one British prime ministers. He was born before Victoria came to the throne. I pray that Elizabeth will live even longer. Indeed, any occasion is a good one for Loyalty, so let me add, God save the Queen!

Paradigm change

According to some statistics, 6 per cent of the world’s Catholics live in the United States. They account for 80 per cent of the annulments granted in Rome. Add Canada into that, and I begin to wonder if the Church actually has a serious “annulment problem,” yet. She certainly would if she allowed our American decadence to spread. I sometimes think many of her other problems could also be solved, simply by excommunicating everyone north of the Rio Grande.

But then I look at Ireland. I was raised in the belief that it was a Catholic country. It had stayed that way through centuries of siege by my Protestant ancestors, who in the end did not even manage to take all of Ulster. By osmosis I learnt that the Irish were impossible. They could not even be killed off. Lord, we tried. Starved them out and they somehow found boats: started washing up everywhere else. No matter how poor, no matter how desperate, they clung to their Mass. That old Ireland: the pre-eminent scandal of the British Empire, so close to Home. Even the Scots could be co-opted. Even the Welsh understood threats. Nothing could be done about Catholic Ireland. Decades before their cut-and-run from huge unmanageable India, little Ireland had made the English give up.

Only the Irish could defeat the Irish, and now they have done it to themselves. In the space between the last two censuses the number of divorced people in Ireland has much more than doubled. The number attending Mass has plummetted, and there is every other indication of religious and familial collapse. In my now Catholic view, they have sold their souls for a mess of EU pottage, and got in addition a staggering bill. They have bought into the post-modern void, and are voiding all over themselves.

In Ireland, according to some item I read recently in the Irish Independent, applications for annulment, which had never been numerous, have sharply fallen: they halve, while divorces double. The truth is that no one can be bothered any more. It was a different situation to start with. In America, from what I can see, annulment applications are rubber-stamped. Often one party to the annulment is not even consulted. The only trial is waiting the requisite long time for the papers to rise to the top of successive bureaucratic heaps. From the blank application before me, I see it is assumed the applicant has already found — is probably living with — another squeeze. The only Catholic touch seems to be the assumption that person is oppositely sexed. I’m sure objections have been raised to that restriction.

Whereas in Ireland I learn, as a holdover from the past, only a minority of applicants get beyond the application. Some 40 per cent are rejected outright, as showing no prima facie case. More than half of the remaining applications are then withdrawn, under cross-examination. The sheaf reaching Rome is very thin. Of those finally rubber-stamped, some 80 per cent contain prohibitions on any further marriage by one or both parties — the “defect” that was cause for the annulment being judged still present. In other words, Holy Church does not propose to be gulled again.

Now, this is a holdover from a culture in which marriage was not a joke. Clearly, the judicial vicars for the Irish tribunals are “behind the times”; understandably, given the speed of “change” in their country. In the secularized world that Ireland has suddenly entered, the whole idea of Christian marriage is inconceivable. Here in America, this has been the case for some time. For nearly half a century, every marriage has been contracted in the knowledge that a divorce (then, if wanted, an annulment) could be easily obtained if it did not work out. And even in Catholic churches, as I have noticed from attending a few “old fashioned” weddings in the last few years, the concept of “man and woman” is being discarded. Instead the word “persons” is discreetly insinuated, and the vows made identical, rather than risk confrontation with the Zeitgeist.

The large question of divorce and re-marriage is currently before Rome. In due course we will discover whether our current pope is like Paul VI — who wrote Humanae Vitae on his own, courageously in defiance of most of the advice that had been given him — or whether he is not.

His predecessor believed and wrote that we must expect a much smaller Church. The choice is to adapt the Church to “trends,” or breathe that defiance. I am in no doubt what Christ would do given that choice: for the Christ of mass-market publicity is not the Christ of the gospels. His “mercy” was very unlike our “tolerance.” He never said, “Who am I to judge?” and the Church that acted in Christ’s name never said it either. (She taught: “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” a dimensionally different idea.) But here we are in a new world where, as Walter Kasper says, the Church finds herself vexed:

“Today we find ourselves in a situation similar to that of the last Council. At that time as well there existed, for example on the question of ecumenism or religious freedom, encyclicals and decisions of the Holy Office that seemed to preclude other ways. Without violating the binding dogmatic tradition, the Council opened doors. We can ask ourselves: is it not perhaps possible that there could be further developments on the present question as well?”

In his “secret speech” which opened the Vatican’s consistory on the family, the cardinal is said merely to have “asked questions.” The quote exemplifies how leading those questions were. The pope himself praised Kasper’s speech, before anyone could read it, as an example of “profound theology,” of “serene thinking,” of “doing theology on one’s knees.” Now we have the whole text, thanks to the secular newspaper Il Foglio, which obtained a copy and published it on 1st March.

Cardinal Kasper alludes to conditions in the first centuries, when the Church confronted the pagan customs of the ancient world, and gradually amended them. He then admits that conditions are not quite the same today, while nevertheless looking back to the early centuries to inspire a “radical … paradigm change.” This is a cant phrase, itself deserving unequivocal contempt.

His most signal failure was to take matrimony itself seriously; he only considered the demands made against it. He addresses what we call today, “the problem” — people are not obeying the rules, so something must be done about the rules. It is easy enough to see the solution towards which Cardinal Kasper’s leading questions lead. Through one of his soi-disant “questions” he proposes to take the Sacrament of Penance less seriously, and then the Sacrament of the Eucharist less seriously, in order to facilitate the quick fix that will take the Sacrament of Matrimony less seriously.

It happens I would myself be a beneficiary of any foreseeable relaxation of Church discipline in this area. Long before reception into the Catholic Church, I contracted a very unhappy marriage, the worst mistake of my life. It would be lovely to be free of it, in exchange for privately confessing what I have just publicly confessed. I am writing, thus, against my own interest; and this because I take the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer seriously. (“Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”)

We are trying to accommodate the outside world: that world in which marriage has become a joke. This is the opposite of what we did in the first centuries, when we were trying to make the outside world accommodate Christ. But the world to which we now bow is fluff. It is “redefining marriage” even as I write. Our answer, to the greater challenge in that pagan Roman environment, was defiance. This led to martyrdoms and many other unpleasant developments; and concluded with our triumph. But now we seem embarked on a course to avoid unpleasantness, by accepting defeat.

A mood

A score of years, at least, has passed since I had my last glimpse of Richard J. Needham. This was in the old Harvey’s hamburger franchise (since bulldozed) opposite Varsity Stadium along Bloor Street. It was where we met for our dinner dates, at his insistence.

Needham was once a celebrated columnist in the Globe & Mail (once an important Canadian newspaper). It was he who renamed it the Mop & Pail. The Wicked Paedia entry on him says, “humour columnist,” which is a euphemism for any writer of serious intention appearing in the mass media. His heyday had been in the 1960s, when Richard Doyle (the last of the Globe‘s talented and courageous editors) had saved him from immolation by a staff mob. He did this by moving Needham’s works from city news to the lower right corner of what was then unquestionably Canada’s most distinguished editorial page.

According to highly probable legend, Needham had been caught, as a reporter, making up news stories from scratch: ludicrous, satirical stories in which every name, title, place, and institution had been invented. At least one of these creations had made it into print, under a stone-faced headline. The entire editorial horseshoe was calling for his head. Doyle observed that the man had been miscast as a factual reporter, when he was an imaginative and entertaining essayist. Rather than fire him, the answer was to promote and move him to the more exalted slot. A man who, as most great journalists, had no college education, Doyle was widely and well read. He was thus acquainted with the higher journalistic traditions.

The droll and refined George Bain, who presented himself occasionally as a hayseed from Saskatchewan in his sometimes versified and ridiculously lyrical “Letters from Lilac”; or wandered into considerations on fine food and wine; or provided telling vignettes from forgotten history — anchored the lower left corner on that page which, with its op-ed, maintained literary standards unimaginable today. Bain was by designation the chief commentator on national, or as we used to say, Dominion affairs; the doyen of the country’s most august Ottawa bureau. The op-ed often carried essays, including quite scrurrilous ones, by major cultural figures. Letters from readers aspired to the old Times of London calibre; and as only those with something penetrating to say, and some wit to express it, were published, it was a delight to read them. (The now long-defunct Ottawa Journal was then the principal competition, for editorial-page class; but there was some to be found in most major broadsheets. Today there is none, anywhere.)

I was briefly in a Canadian high school at the end of the ‘sixties, when I was reading those pages with close attention, and Needham and Bain became heroes to me, and to my delectation for their very conceits. I’d distrust my own juvenile judgement, had I not gone back much later to look over them again. Such writing, well-informed about the world and not just the affairs of municipal departments, was what had made me think that journalism could be worthwhile as a trade; too, the reason why my first full-time job, at age sixteen, was obtained as a copy boy on that newspaper.

Needham was already a model to me, and the honour of meeting him and even fetching him coffee is unforgotten. Once abroad in that newsroom, I found that he, along with that editor, Doyle (“Dietrich Doppelganger” in Needham’s published allusions), were among the few who could actually find time to talk to an earnest sixteen-year-old about matters of importance, and provide some thoughtful guidance. I noticed that the mediocrities on staff were always too busy, and anyway too self-important.

Needham’s columns were often cast in the form of comic tales, often traditional folk tales re-cast in modern urban environments. Other columns, under the continuing title “A Writer’s Notebook,” consisted entirely of aphorisms and asides. His “beat” was modern man, and human freedom; the modern woman and her unhappiness, owing to the decline of men; the ages of man, from infancy to codgerdom; the raw philosophical questions. It would be too simple to call him a libertarian or an anarchist; he was radically opposed to falsehood, and allergic to all schemes of social organization, and a connoisseur of personal eccentricity and aloofness.

After each night’s shift I would leave a sheet of my own proposed aphorisms, anonymously, in Mr Needham’s mail box. Upon guessing I was the source of them, he summoned me into companionship. Though he posed in his columns as rogue and reprobate, and tried modestly to dress the part (kept bottles of whisky in his office from which he never actually drank; pretended to be paying a tart as his secretary), I discovered that he was secretly respectable, patriarchal, an attentive husband and father, utterly reliable and fastidious on the finest conventional points of honour, and many other paradoxes. Accused by feminists of misogyny, for instance, he had perhaps as high a regard for women as I have ever encountered in a man. Marked by leftists as a shill for the established economic order, his contempt for large corporations went vastly beyond theirs. (It was just that his contempt for “government” went farther.) And old as he was becoming, he was an inspiration chiefly to the young, and the genuinely sceptical in all walks of life. Dismissed as “the first hippie,” he was at close quarters quite the opposite to that; rather a disciplined old soldier. Indeed he was a pioneer of sneering at hippie conformity.

By the later ‘seventies (when I wasn’t around in Canada) he was being hounded out of the Globe by the swelling progressive faction within, alternatively mocked and demonized as “a dinosaur.” They were almost rid of him when they realized that he sold a lot of papers, and would have to be brought back and “phased out” more carefully. Finally, with the installation of an entirely new generation in the editorial suite, the Globe had editors willing to get rid of him regardless of cost. After years of fighting to hold his trench, he gave up and went away. By this time he must have been the last journalist on the Globe of any substance or integrity, and his own audience was finally drying up.

That was when I began meeting him for hamburgers at Harvey’s. I had founded a magazine entitled The Idler at the end of 1984, specifically to supply what had gone missing from Canadian journalism — the intelligence and the style. He noticed it immediately, and sent letters of encouragement. I was determined to land him as a regular contributor to the magazine. He made polite excuses about being old and senile, belied by the sharpness of every uttered sentence. I persisted in my begging, from meal to meal. He seemed flattered, and remained affectionate, but finally gave me his definitive response. It was an unforgettable tirade, touching upon his whole later experience of Canadian journalism, and the encroaching sleaziness of all our public life. It concluded:

“I have nothing to say to this city any more. Nothing!

There was real fire and brimstone in the declamation; I could give up my begging. Needham’s only concession was that, “Those who remain curious about my views on contemporary life, may read my silence.”

It is not good to end in bitterness. It is not Christian, and so far as I could tell, Needham was never a Christian. He was an old Stoic. Christ for him was another Socrates; the parables were astute but the “mythology” was expendable. I had, both before and after my own Christian conversion, asked him about such things. The more direct my question, the more evasively he replied. On the Church, and churches, from bishops to televangelists, he did have clear opinions, along the lines of, “pigsties of self-seeking hypocrisy.” His pleasures were simple, and founded in people and in nature. There were no “invisibles” to him. He had never craved power. A pigeon in the park was worth feeding, the more if there was a sign that read, “Do not feed the pigeons.” Truth and love were fleeting, but worth clinging to, as he did to wife and family. Nevertheless, in the memorable words of his own proposed death notice, left years before in the obituary files at the Globe: “Richard J. Needham’s tiresome and repetitious column will not appear today, because he is dead.”

Call it a mood: one which can be maintained by the true Stoic over decades. I can easily understand it, especially at this moment, having been in a mood like that this past week or two, with nothing whatever to say to my own tiny shrinking public, or to the world at large, beyond, “Go to hell.” But of course this won’t do. If one is a writer one must never agree to shut up; not so long as there is one more reader. Force the smug, “enlightened” bastards to silence you.

“Faith is not feeling,” as a correspondent reminded us a fortnight ago. It is not a good mood. It is not a bad mood, or any kind of mood. Hope is not a virtue that requires circumstances that are hopeful. Nor, especially in this season of Lent, is Charity an option. It is instead the right kind of defiance. In the words even of the pre-Christian, but more than stoical Wallace Stevens: “Place honey on the altars and die, you lovers that are bitter at heart.”

A dinosaur for Lent

For the moment, at least, it appears this website is functioning again, which I mention for the benefit of my Commentariat. They may resume fire.

The season of Lent has interposed since my last effusion. Several readers had wondered if I’d fall silent for the duration of it. I will not, especially as I have been reminded by recent attacks that keeping this website may not be a pleasure. Generally, in the last few years, I have been more often punished than rewarded for what I have written; writing itself, or at least, writing honestly, becomes the ordeal. Silence, in the current “media environment,” might by contrast be the real pleasure. So giving up writing for Lent would be a cheat. Better to give up the meats and sweets, the snicker and licker.

For Lent this year, I should like to call gentle reader’s attention to a wonderful passage in the works of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), that French bishop and theologian and magnificent dinosaur from the Antediluvian, before the French Enlightenment, when very much less “modern” sentimental nonsense and “feeling” had attached to the Catholic faith; when it was often much sharper and cleaner.

He is quoted at the end of an excellent piece by his translator, Christopher O. Blum, which appeared on the Catholic Thing website, upon Ash Wednesday. And here is what Bishop Bossuet had to say in his own Meditations on Lent:


“And you, whoever you may be, to whom Divine Providence should bring this book, be you great or small, poor or rich, wise or ignorant, priest or layman, monk or nun: go now to the foot of the altar and contemplate Jesus there, in the sacrament where he hides.

“Remain there in silence. Say nothing to him. Look upon him and wait for him to speak to you in the depths of your heart.

“I have died, he says, and my life is hidden in God until I appear in my glory to judge the world.

“Hide yourself in God with me, and do not think of appearing until I appear. If you are alone, I will be your companion. If you are weak, I will be your strength. If you are poor, I will be your treasure. If you are hungry, I will be your food. If you are afflicted, I will be your consolation and your joy. If you are bored, I will be your delight. If you are falling, I will hold you up.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)

“I do not wish for a third: none other but you and me. …

“So may it be, O Lord, who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.”

Feast of St David

Really there is no truth in the allegation, made privately to me by a woman who may have known me too long, that I am, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, fatally attracted to ballerinas. It would be more accurate to call them coryphées.

The cat can look at the queen, as my mother used to say, and I will surely look in admiration upon she who rises to the station of ballerina — a term which, gentle reader should know, is parallel with diva in the opera. It is not a job description. It is an acknowledgement of genius and high art. The job description in English is merely, “ballet dancer.” At the top you have your prima, then your first soloists, then your second soloists — in our own (estimable) National Ballet. Eventually you come down to the corps de ballet, the footsoldiers of the outfit. (There are male dancers, too. Let us just ignore them.)

The coryphée, to my understanding, is somewhere between the soloists and the corps de ballet. At worst she may perform as a drill sergeant for the latter. In the gymnastic, athletic, almost football atmosphere of contemporary ballet, this is what it looks like. A cruelly limited popular repertoire focuses the attention on the play-by-play, as in any spectator sport. And this is the age of feminism, when our leading ladies of the dance present as tom-boys. I hardly ever go to the ballet any more; I used to when there was still some possibility of enchantment. But today the eternal feminine, the spookily erotic, has been replaced by “sex appeal” — the slab of meat laid out on the high-class butcher’s counter. Or shrink-wrapped by photography for the masses. I don’t like that.

Old-fashioned ballet was shapes and patterns and musical progressions; the new stuff is more like football, plus sex, right there on the field.

But it is true, all my life, or at least since I can remember (for even as a boy), I’ve been enchanted by coryphées. (Please do not say I am shallow; of course I am shallow, for I am a boy.)

An amateur of this business might call them “pretty girls.” There is more to it than that, however. Graceful movement comes into it: not so much a defiance of gravity, as a studied indifference to it. There was a time when mothers, in every known culture, taught their daughters how to walk; taught them how to bear a bowl or platter to the table; how to lift a vase of flowers. Perhaps no one today will know what I am talking about. But if I make any feminist good and angry, I will at least have accomplished something.

A prima ballerina assoluta I have never wanted, never needed: those you have to share with the world. My own aspiration never rose above a coryphée.