Essays in Idleness


Darjeeling tea

Among the happiest memories of my childhood, was my initiation into tea-tasting by our family servant, Bill.

This at Nedous Hotel, in Lahore — thus spelt, and not an hotel but apartments in my time. Which, with its gardens, towers, arches, porches, domes, … back quarters, kitchens and allotments, … was among the wonders of the world. All since demolished, and exchanged for the usual architectural obscenities, in the hope of making a faster rupee.

The occasion was a small tea party my parents were hosting. I remember it vividly. Three pots had been brewed, and set on a long silver tray. The large one in the middle was an Assam tea. It was flanked by a Darjeeling, and (most likely) something green and Chinese.

Bill poured samples into three small white porcelain cups, and invited me to study their colour; then to sip from each at full attention, gargling water in the intervals. Later, we graduated to blind taste tests, and I began to assimilate arcane information. I was six years old at this time, then seven. By the age of eight my views on tea were settled, and they have never been altered. I hope, and even expect, to die a Catholic (like our servant, Bill); but let me add with some confidence that I will die longing for another cup of Darjeeling tea.

It is not, however, the only tea I drink, or the one I drink most often. Rather, I “drink around.” At this moment, in the tea caddies of the High Doganate, one will find a choice of four, including a fine mountain-grown Taiwan wulong, a muddy but delicious Pu-erh from Yunnan, and my regular: a strong, masculine, upper-working-class Assam, that would be too bitter without a shot of skimmed milk, and small lump (in the pot) of half-crystallized buckwheat honey, or cane sugar — to bring out the softer, background notes.

By happy chance, I obtained a half-pound pack of Lopchu estate Darjeeling from a good grocery in the “Little India” neighbourhood, last week, at a reasonable price for its GFOP grade (12 dollars). For two dollars less I could have settled for the FOP, but then, were I willing to cut corners like that, I’d be the kind of man capable of signing an arms inspection agreement with Persia.

Let us be clear. There are six grades of Darjeeling, and the highest, Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGFOP), will never reach the Greater Parkdale Area. One will need not only money, but contacts to obtain it. Perhaps, fly there, and start networking among the estate managers. You can’t buy it at Harrod’s, because they don’t sell to Harrod’s: it would be beneath them. The Queen might obtain some, but then, she has a staff.

Each grade lower drops a letter off the front, so that my fine tea is of the fourth grade, just short of “tippy,” which refers to the abundance of flowering buds. “Golden” means that in the process of oxidation, these tips will turn a gold colour. “Flowery” is the term for high floral aroma. “Orange” has nothing to do with fruit, but refers to the Nassau family of Holland, whose most creditable accomplishment was pioneering the importation of tea into Europe, four centuries ago. The term insinuates, “good enough for Dutch royalty,” perhaps. “Pekoe,” or more correctly pak-ho, refers to the white down that gathers at the base of the bottom bud, an indication of the plant’s mood, its susceptibility to plucking. (Tea picking is an art; one does not strip the tree bare, but selects each leaf as it is ready.)

Now, survey your local supermarket shelf — let us suppose it is an “upmarket” emporium — and you will find in the tea section nothing but sludge. The teas will all be “blended” — which I esteem as blended whisky, or blended wine, delivered in tanker trucks. This will be especially true of the expensive boxes with whimsical names for the blends — that say nothing of date, terroir, or the specific variety. The tea inside the boxes will be packed in irritating little bags, probably with the absurd claim that they are “organic.” Once cut open, they reveal that the tea was ground by a Rotorvane, even before being stirred in a diesel-electric mixer. Various chain tea stores have sprung up, posing as effete, to separate fools from their money. Their pretensions are risible, and they annoy me very much.

I won’t comment on the “herbal teas” they also sell; except to recommend, to the women (including nominal males) who want herbal remedies for their malades imaginaires, that they take up smoking.

Rather, let us focus on the words, “Orange Pekoe.” They attach to most of the Subcontinent’s black tea supply, as to that of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (the former paradise of Ceylon). I have explained what the words mean in a series — not much — but standing alone, they mean less. They guarantee that the purchaser will receive, at an inflated price, tea of a low, coarse, common quality, processed by the method called “CTC” (crush, tear, curl), introduced in the 1930s by a ravening industrialist named McKercher (“Sir William …”), and now spread around the planet.

The machinery was designed for volume at the expense of quality. It makes no sense to put good tea in, and what comes out might as well be bagged. This is tea for the masses, who have no prejudice or taste, and do not aspire to the humane. Like so much else in our fallen world, the best argument would be that tea of this sort is “better than nothing.”

Here is where we must come to blows. Tea is by its nature a labour-intensive production, and the “orthodox” method from the 1860s was already industrial enough. The successive stages of spreading and withering the leaves; of rolling them under slight, fluctuating pressure; of bringing out the oils by enzymatic oxidation; then gently drying to arrest; finally, sorting through grids (to match leaf size, and thus infusion times and characteristics) — produced teas different in kind from the parallel, entirely manual, Chinese methods. But that educated instinct — skill, art — was still required at every stage. To eliminate these is to dehumanize; but it is also to impose sharply lower standards of quality; and is therefore barbaric and evil.

The business of cultivating, planting, growing and harvesting, flush by flush, I will touch on only briefly. Those who labour in the fields are, overwhelmingly, women — not because they are cheaper to employ, but for their smaller and more delicate hands. Children, once trained, can also be useful. Men find their natural place in management. Unfortunately, “industrial” (which is really to say, socialist) methods tend to corrupt these last, and complete industrialization corrupts them absolutely.

Let me use for my example here the habit inculcated by the goons of India’s state tea bureaucracy, who disseminate tea cultivars by grafting. This produces trees that are, in effect, cloned, and thus entirely predictable — quickly and stupidly. Thanks to this national programme, the tea industry has “benefited,” by volume alone, through the opening of gardens in parts of India where tea was never grown, and perhaps should never have been; and by the hastening of plants to maturity. (It could be worse; for the goons used to promote the most destructive pesticides available.)

But God never wished his tea plants to be grafted. He meant the trees to be raised, patiently from seed. A grafted tree can live, maybe forty years. The seedling can last much more than a century — there are tea trees in the jungles of Yunnan that have grown full out, to a towering height, and are several centuries in age. (And they present leaves that are fascinating, in their infused taste; but you must be a renminbi millionaire to afford them.)

In the magnificent Singell tea gardens in Darjeeling, there is a guarded corner planted from the original seeds, stolen from China by British botanists (masquerading as mere opium salesmen) far back in the nineteenth century. These trees, well over 150 years of age, are still yielding leaves of the classic, Darjeeling “pastry” aroma, with their silky liquid texture, and muscat undertones. No longer Chinese, but adapted through transfer to the fine soils, the superb drainage, the frequent mountain mists and seasonal variations of their new home. Moreover, seedlings (as opposed to graftlings) root much deeper, become hardier in themselves, and do not ruin the soil by pigging the nutrients at the top.

Unlike the lower-altitude teas of Assam, which produce a nearly constant harvest, the shoots and unfurlings of Darjeeling leaves are distinctly seasonal. There is first flush in March, second flush beginning in late June, and then an autumn flush after the monsoon, in October and November. Each has its own characteristics, and demands subtle variations in the processing techniques. The first flush is a spectacular affair, with a bouquet often described as “explosive,” and a sweet, fluttering and fading aftertaste that is sublime. The second tastes maltier and riper, and will appeal more to the peaty whisky connoisseur. The third combines these qualities, understated within a broader floral spectrum.

The plants hibernate in the winter season, rest dormant between each flush, and thus yield much less than their more tropical cousins. They are stressed by their harsher environment. But these are the very causes that account for their extraordinary flavour — for as they sleep they dream, and the richly developed aromatic complexity in the soul of the Camellia sinensis is held, sleeping, for sudden release as they wake.

It is for this reason that I call Darjeeling a prophetic tea.


A beloved friend has sent me photographs “before and after” restoration work on old Catholic statuary, that ended brilliantly well. In particular, one overpainted and much-abused madonna, abandoned “in the spirit of Vatican II,” has sprung back to most extraordinary life.

This is the constant Catholic cause: of Restoration. It strikes me that, while the world is so busy going to Hell, we should all as Catholics entertain ourselves by going idly about, restoring things. Even if tomorrow the devils come, to smash up everything we have done, we should not lose heart or patience. In Heaven, everything will be restored.

I take the same view, as a man of tea. Those who struggle to make the finest tea that can be made in this world, though outwardly they may be Hindoo or Musulman, Buddhist or Jain — or of any denominational persuasion — are in a sense secretly Catholic. Not in communion, be it plainly said, yet still in Christ’s mysterious company. They are reverent; guided by our Father Creator; tutored through His works. God will see them, and surely, find a way to save, when, in the fulness of time, they see and call upon Him.

This is, I should think, a “Benedict option” for our conduct in this world, in league with our brothers under the skin — to go about, patiently, in this work of restoration — of whatever is beautiful; whatever is true, and just; behovely; and of good report. To repair, patiently, whatever has been wrecked, with a will that is apt to disregard “market forces.”

The fiends, the Enemy, may come to afflict us, as he and his have always done. Never mind. Let us aspire to get on with our work, even in the shadow of the raised axe; or of the blade whose painful serrations will saw through our own necks. Let us not make too much of what we have lost, for in Heaven all will be regained; and in Hell, the devils will be vanquished.


“This week has been fantastic for German public diplomacy. All that was missing was Merkel making refugee children cry,” wrote some journalist quoted in this morning’s BBC.

Of course, the remark was facetious. The German chancelloress had been confronted in a public forum (and thus on camera) with one Palestinian girl (university aged) whose refugee-claimant family could have been evicted from Germany (but weren’t). Had they been, they could have wound up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon (or not). But Germany can’t take everyone in, Merkel explained. The girl cried. Merkel went over to comfort her, and said politics is tough sometimes.

The hashtag #Merkelstreichelt is now all over Germany. It means “Merkel strokes.” She is blazoned as a heartless hypocrite.

Public business is now done this way in “democracy,” thanks to media that can capture emotional moments, usually posed and contrived. A successful politician, such as Barack Obama, exploits them with genius, and a cool confidence that the public has a very low attention span. They will only remember emotional moments. Angela Merkel herself usually does a better job, but nothing much can be done about an ambush. She did her best to diffuse it. She’s a pro: I’m sure she knew exactly what the game was; that she’d been set up. From working in the media, I have seen such set-ups many times: all the cameras flashing on cue. Tricks of editing and camera angle are used to enhance the “teachable moment”; to condense the narrative into a hard rock of emotion, aimed directly at the boogeyperson’s head. For the media people are pros, too. They know how to adjust the “optics.” Pretty young woman crying: that will sway everyone except the tiny minority who know something about the subject. And they are now tarred with the same brush.

Huge changes in public life can be effected with big money, careful organization, and ruthless attention to “optics.” The genius of the “gay marriage” campaign in Ireland, for instance, was to recruit conventionally good-looking young gay “couples,” train them to exude charm and wholesomeness, and send them around to knock on Irish doors. Their job was to be sympathetic and appealing, to present themselves as attractive, and “normal” — and persecuted, “for no reason at all.” Every door in Ireland was the target. Millions and millions were raised to support the campaign, mostly from gay lobbies in America. They would put their prettiest faces forward, while demonizing their awkward and underfunded opponents with guilt by many associations. The Church, for instance, was against them. (In fact, many Church liberals were not.) Sexually deviant priests and nuns were — thanks also to tireless media efforts — now part of Irish legend and lore. The other side would be made to appear the face of unnatural sexual attraction.

And of course it worked, among Irish people who are, by now, like the great majority in every Western country, untethered from their moral moorings. They do not think, they feel. Here was a campaign, brilliantly conceived, to manipulate their feelings.


Returning, now, to our “Benedict options” (see last few Idleposts), the question arises, how to escape from the mad house that Western society has become? How, ideally, to escape with our children — who are subjected to emotional manipulation, assisted by high “production values,” for hours every day; and then to the peer pressure that follows, as the tsunami follows the earthquake. How, for instance, to be cured of the “consumerism” that enables this manipulation, by putting its tools into every young hand, and every old hand, too. How, in this mad house, to dissever not only them, but ourselves, from the tyranny of “trending”?

You cannot tell people to throw their hand-held devices away, with any hope of obedience. You cannot, for instance, reason that doing so will save them both time and money, on an ever-increasing scale. They are perfectly addicted, and too, perfectly accustomed to a world where — to use one little example I noticed recently — a simple meeting of four people for a beer “after work” can be rescheduled six or seven times, so in the end more time was spent negotiating the hour, date, and the venue, than drinking. (At no point did it occur to anyone but me, the guy not carrying an iPhone, that this was farcical. Instead I was criticized for not being equipped.)

Anthrax, botulinum, cyanide, ricin — these substances are not evil in themselves. It depends what they are used for, and the emotional argument can be made that instant communication has many good uses. All day I hear the ambulance and fire sirens, dispatched thanks to the miracle of modern technology. Let’s find someone whose life was saved, and put him on camera. I know old people who carry their little bleepers about, in anticipation of their next heart attacks. Including one who hits it whenever he feels stress. It is a great relief to him, living as he does, like so many old people today — alone.

Once you have the thing, you are going to use it. Not, despite the evidence of my ears, only to call ambulances, but to follow breaking news on CNN; or at home there’s a wide-screen to call up movies. People in this city buy powered lawnmowers to cut 100 square feet of lawn grass; it would have been quicker with scissors. … Well, I’m getting carried away.

And the truth is I own this laptop myself, and publish this Idleblog which tries to present itself as if it were on paper. Without it, I would have been successfully silenced by my media masters. I think certain “modern ironies” need to be exploited — but they are dangerous, and once you are in, it gets harder and harder to draw any line. Twitter I tried for three months; I found it was pure poison and got out. But it is hard to keep one’s chastity in a media whore house, let alone one’s mind in the mad house of our times.


The serious Catholic or other Christian, or for that matter the serious (i.e. “orthodox”) Jew, from his first perception that there is a God, and that God is there, has developed a notion of “authority.” For that matter, the babe first encounters this in his mother, though in time it may fade away. There is an order to the world, and to those in whom the first spark of faith has caught, and ignited, that order does not depend on us; it cannot be changed by our own will. Apparent randomness or chance may be as it appears, but will yield to a more thorough understanding. The very fact that heads and tails come out equally, suggests an order in which they are bound so to do. An order is an order is an order: the world is not a collocation of meaningless atoms, but a hierarchy of being and events — there is, as Mother Teresa said, life in it. Some things are more important than others, and as one reaches up the hierarchy towards God, the significance — meaning — in our lives increases. Though God we cannot see; only shadows and reflections.

We are guided — upwards, as it were — by authority. Men who are wise have this quality we seek; we select them with our trust. Their authority is grasped with the growth of our own understanding. One who paints, comes to learn that there are fine painters; one who thinks comes to learn that there are deep thinkers. For that matter (as I discovered when a child), one who plays cricket learns that there are great cricketers, from whom one may learn in the humility of attention. The teacher worth his hire is himself an exemplar of the discipline he expounds, and by humble attention one benefits from the authority, not only of the teacher but beyond him, of the greater masters on whom he draws. The acquirement of knowledge, as the allied acquirement of wisdom, is a profoundly undemocratic act.

Sanctity is taught, almost entirely by example, starting from a few simple rules. We have, I am convinced, different aptitudes for it, various strengths and weaknesses with which we were endowed — the strengths developed and the weaknesses repaired, or turned to our advantage. This is done by careful, humble mimesis, especially when young. Our own judgement, of what is and is not an authority, itself develops by mimetic means; and as we grow we learn whom to trust. For there are, below the saints, people who at least know that saints are possible.

Alternatively, our heads filled instead with self-esteem, and the Pavlovian slogans of “equality,” our capacities atrophy. We sink, by gravity, into the common mud, or to “the lowest common denominator” — and by statistical likelihood, we rest there.

We become, instead of free men, playthings of fate, and the man of power can lead us about by the hook of our vanity. Politics and business alike have come to depend on a form of “lifestyle advertising,” in which flattery is used to shape our behaviour in the interest of making a sale. His untutored emotions are the strings my which the human marionette is guided, in his wooden way: shown what to see, and how to respond to it; told when to laugh and cry.

All contemporary “progressive” efforts are directed to undermining any sense of authority, and therefore to “freeing” the subject from the cultivation of his own inchoate conscience — from the development of knowledge, and wisdom, on how things really are. The schools themselves are knowingly employed in this cause which I call “idiotization” — meaning it strictly as the etymology suggests: the atomization of the individual, the breaking of his bonds with true, demonstrable authority. He is taught not only to “question everything,” but never to wait for an answer; to think in slogans, and behave by rote.

The task before us is to undermine the underminers. It is to inculcate, by instruction and example, that sense of authority; to do everything in our power to light that light. And this task can begin anywhere at all, and be spread from topic to topic by analogy. It is, if you will, the task of “homeschooling” in this age of teaching by numbered batches: to show authority to the child, and to the child in ourselves. Learn to know who are your betters, and rise by emulation. Do not agree to membership in “the masses.”

I think this is, in quite practical terms, the most effective prophylactic against the authority of the Devil, operating upon the vanity within. For true authority has the power to smash that vanity.

Towards wisdom

Do what you can, now, and keep doing it without the permission of God’s adversaries; do what you can, and discover what you thought you couldn’t along the way. That was my first (muted) instinct, in this discussion of the “Benedict option,” conducted these last few days. It is like the “New Evangelization”: a phrase, a hashtag floating among thousands on the Internet currently. I am mildly allergic to such phrases, which I associate with tarting up the same old, possibly beloved product, in the hope of catching a few new buyers. (“New improved!”) It is an old, tired marketing strategy, that seldom works, and then not for long. Often, if unintentionally, it suggests: “We have tampered with the thing you love!”

The phrase, “Benedict option,” now associated with Rod Dreher, was drawn from Alasdair MacIntyre — his remarkable book, After Virtue, which surely every gentle reader has read. He tossed it off in a particular context, and not as a call to arms. MacIntyre is himself full of reservations about calls to arms. Shorn of that context, the term takes on an utopian flavour, and soon inspires dreams of little “orthodox” communities, which we may also imagine to be “green,” co-operative, or feudally semi-collective in a neo-mediaeval way.

But here is the rub. The original “Benedict option” — presented by Benedict of Nursia, first at Subiaco, then at Monte Cassino in the mountains of southern Italy — was unambiguously monastic. As one may discover by perusing The Rule of Saint Benedict, it bespeaks a carefully ordered and tightly disciplined community, peopled exclusively by avowed monks. It is expressly not a model for Catholic secular life: for monks are not permitted to breed, and need a constant supply of immigrants from “the world” to stay in business. (Not that The Rule lacks useful hints for life outside.)

We, who do not take such vows, live down the hill in that world, in the valley of the shadow of death, and have always lived there. We bear the children. Little gated Catholic communities (or Orthodox, or Evangelical) are by their nature porous. In Christian history they grew out of pagan settlements, by the gradual conversion of the people (there were many stages). These were not utopian experiments; they partook of the vagaries of history, and centuries passed before they were transformed; as more centuries have passed in their descent into pagan communities again.

“Communism is only possible among friends,” as my Czech drinking buddies used to say. The convents offer variations on this kind of communism. They don’t work on any other terms than those which are consciously stated in defiance of sinful human nature. The membership is voluntary; no one is born into monastic life.

Just as no one is born Catholic. We are made, or make ourselves, into Catholics, by the grace of God, but we are all born as little pagans, rife with original sin.

I emphasize the obvious because the obvious is no longer obvious: we dream about things that are not physically possible. All secular utopian experiments fail. It is only possible to sustain them by tyranny, until the tyrants themselves crack up from one natural cause or many. Some, like the Shakers, die seemingly peaceful in their sleep; most perish in conflict. Vast ones like the Soviet, or our liberal-progressive-atheist Nanny State, collapse under their own cumulative dead weight, after the destruction of souls by the millions.

Monasteries have only worked, and flourished through time, because the “problems of communism” have been addressed in them with holy candour. Where these have not, they have also failed — and the implosion of a monastery (or nunnery) is, as we saw again and again in the ’sixties, and since in the utopian “spirit of Vatican II,” quite something to behold. A tipping point is reached when the inmates all go crazy, and from a domain of tranquillity and peace the place turns suddenly into a lunatic asylum, in the brief moments before the inmates fly out to wreak havoc back here in the world. (I have long looked on “liberation theology” and the like as mental conditions.)

The wisdom of the Catholic Church has been, from time out of mind, “don’t go there.” Don’t try to create, or even preserve, a monastic environment without the constant invocation, and quiet reception, of the will of God. Give up on the half-way house of “dialogue” and “dialectic”: Christ is all or nothing.

Outside, the whole world is our dar al-harb. Every parish church is in mission territory, and stays in mission territory, fighting an uphill battle against its own parishioners, often including the priests — who are reverting to paganism twenty times a day, and can only be retrieved through the faith, communicated chiefly through the Sacraments.

We, who are not monks and nuns, are out in the world, and stuck here, among all the temptations, until death moves us along. We are, in the main, incorrigible: we fight over petty things, play nasty tricks on each other, lie like rugs, grab at both spiritual and material comforts that do not belong to us. Our neighbourhoods are like zoos; the best only better kept than others. (This was also true in my beloved thirteenth century.)

My own special pleading for the devolution of government, on the subsidiary principle, is not based on any utopian hope that people with be “nice.” There will always be wars: I would prefer them to be smaller. There will always be tyrants: I’d prefer them to contained. Little governments will fail as big governments do: I’d prefer smaller failures. The world could be made quieter, but it will always be a mess.

Something might possibly be achieved, for a time, but nothing can be achieved with a people unable to comprehend that the world is radically imperfect, that it will remain so, and that this can’t be fixed by grand schemes. Only very specific problems can be fixed, and then only when they can be placed in some degree of isolation. The bigger the polity, the more it is removed from causes and effects that individual people can see with their own eyes; and thus the more that attempts at problem-solving must necessarily make things worse, under a cascade of unintended consequences. For our fundamental problem is sin, and there can be no human scheme to fix that.

This is why my own conception of “Benedict options” is plural: things we can actually do, now, in our imperfect world. There is one in particular on my mind at the present, which I fully intend to leave until tomorrow.


For today is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (see missals) — of this Lady who is the Seat of Wisdom; before whom we should sometimes shut up and listen (as we can, through our Rosaries).

Not “Mother Earth” but sister Earth; not “sister Mary,” but Mother Mary.

Our Lady, pray for us; reach into our lives, and help us to order them.

Send us more Carmelites, calced and discalced.

Bring forth your rain, upon our desert.

Live not by lies

On the eve of his eviction from Communist Russia, in 1974, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the essay entitled, “Live not by lies.” It was dated 12th February, the day the Soviet secret police busted into his flat in Moscow, and arrested him; the day before they bundled him on an aeroplane for Frankfurt in West Germany. One vividly recalls such days; and the newspaper photograph of the German writer, Heinrich Böll, receiving my hero with flowers at the airport. (More than forty years have passed; I was then twenty, and a Cold Warrior, with no interest in Solzhenitsyn’s religion.)

Finding himself surrounded by newsmen, and pestered with their questions, Solzhenitsyn said that he was tired, and confused, and worried about his family. He wanted only to phone his wife in Moscow. He would not be doing interviews in the foreseeable future. Böll took him to his country retreat, where they pleaded with the newsmen to go away.

Everyone I knew thought this was great news. Solzhenitsyn was now free; he could speak freely. The man himself did not see it that way. He did not associate exile with freedom. He probably understood his situation much as the Soviet thugs who had pushed him onto the plane: as the best punishment the Soviet State could think of. His citizenship stripped, he was now a “foreigner,” no longer a Russian but a Western voice. Had they instead shot him, his voice would resound the louder within Russia.

His popularity in the West quickly diminished. In his Harvard and Nobel addresses, he began to tell the West, too, things the West did not want to hear; for instance, that we were shallow. He settled into a house in Cavendish, Vermont, which he fenced like a fortress against casual gawpers. He made no concessions to the demands of the mass media, when they were more than willing to “mike him up.” He did not appear on Johnny Carson, could not arrange his statements in sound bites, shared no chit with the chattering classes, would not perform as their dancing bear. Journalists, who imagined themselves quite well-intended, were surprised to discover that he felt for them something like contempt. Worse, it was mild contempt. Two by two, their eyeballs began to roll.

By the time he returned to post-Soviet Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn was “yesterday’s man” in the West. He had devoted most of his time in exile to writing and research, in rural seclusion; but the book publishers, who had sold millions of copies of The Gulag Archipelago (written in the 1950s and early ’60s), until it piled up in the remainder stores, had not the stomach to publish much more. To this day, little of the best and most mature writing of this major novelist, playwright, historian, and thinker, is available in English. For decades, old novels such as Cancer Ward continued to be sold only in their first, heavily censored versions. Neither the earlier nor the later works sell terribly well in Russia, I am told. There, too, he became “yesterday’s man,” whose writings were on topics unpleasant, and quite out-of-date. He is by now a mouldering shrine, not an author.


For the last two days I have been discussing “Benedict options.” Yesterday I provided some for grocery shopping. Today, I should like to add further ideas on “the custody of the mouth.” For in addition to eating, the human mouth can be used for speaking. We are, in that sense, marvellously designed: so many of our organs have more than one function, and an appropriate use in each. There is also the custody of the fingers, as we type, and for today’s purpose, since I can do no better myself, I will merely transcribe an excerpt from Solzhenitsyn’s “Live not by lies,” sent along by one of my crankier American correspondents, on whose backwardness I can always rely. (That was a compliment.) It arrived, as if on deadline, just when I needed it.

Several other correspondents have been asking me lately for advice on what they should do, given the gathering darkness in public life; the spread of malicious lies all around them. Should they “lead with the chin” as some (usually failed) boxers do, saying publicly things that may invite retaliation? Should they instead stay quiet and pray? How should they respond, each in his place, as the demands for “political correctness” grow, as they are now doing, incrementally towards Stalinist proportions? How to cope with those spreading lies, from small matters to large matters? What to do, when the perverse is presented as normal, and the normal is presented as perverse; and the most common, simple, ancient words are being “redefined”?

We may try, like men before us, only to avoid trouble. Keep your head down, and your thoughts to yourself. Say and do what is asked of you (not only for yourself but for your family). This is, after all, what most of the Apostles did, in the approach to Christ’s crucifixion. They arranged not to be there. Later, however, as we read in the same Scriptures, both Christ and the Devil caught up with them. In the end, there is no hiding from God.

It may be wrong, foolish, to go looking for trouble. I don’t think that was ever the command. But trouble may come looking for you: the Devil puts you on the spot, and God lets him. Like good scouts, we must be prepared.

What follows is the advice of a fine “scoutmaster”:


Our path is to talk away from the gangrenous boundary. If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: whether consciously to remain a servant of falsehood — of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies — or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

And from that day onward he:

— Will not write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.

— Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people; neither on his own behalf nor at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, nor in a theatrical role.

— Will not depict, foster, or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth, whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.

— Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.

— Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand nor raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.

— Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.

— Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question.

— Will immediately walk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance, or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.

— Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed.

Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.

No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.

But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: towards spiritual independence, or towards spiritual servitude.

Creative self-loathing

For breakfast, up here in the High Doganate, I toasted a couple of things that were described as “crumpets,” and put good butter and maple syrup on them. There were six of these “crumpets” in the package, and the rest will go to the gulls of Humber Bay. How did I come to own them (the crumpets; I don’t own the gulls)? This is painful to recount, but I’ll steel myself.

You see, they were “on sale” for a dollar at the Inner Parkdale “No Thrills” supermarket. What I was doing in there will be the first question, your honour; I admit to going in sometimes because it is half-a-block away, and open late. My intention was to fetch “table cream” for my coffee in the morning (itself a dicey, “homogenized” product), but fell to wandering. Please don’t tell the pope the place was air conditioned: a draw during the continental mid-July. I succumbed to another item that was “on sale,” too. (Bear in mind, this Idleblog is only for my friends.)

Okay, it was some chicken legs on styrofoam, under plastic film. I know what you’re thinking; but I will go about this in the Poor Punjabi way, and make them into a passable curry.

Still, the purchase of items “on sale,” from chain retail facilities, fills me with self-loathing. While neither behaviour is strictly confessable, at least from my reading of the CCC, shopping corporate is a breach of my principles, and getting suckered by a “sale” compounds it.

Yesterday I touched on the “Benedict options” now in the air for Catholics, and others who aspire to break with pattern, and become decent people. Such options are often dismissed as pie-in-ye-sky. To the contemporary urbanized troll, with more borrowed cash than he knows what to do with (whether borrowed by himself, his employer, or his government), “organic” is sufficient. The capitalists now print “organic” on every second label, as a trick to double their prices so they can cut them by 15 percent in “sales”; and urban trolls are (ask any farmer) notoriously easy to con. “Free range” and other terms are used with like vagueness. (Essentially, a chicken is not free.) “Fair trade” means they’re paying off the Marxist insurgents.

To “conservatives” — the term for a market demographic — “back to the land” means hippie. For those with money it means acquiring a cottage and a motorboat. Most exponents of “traditional values” would be at a loss if moved back fifty years.

But even in this vexed business of shopping, it is possible to do something now. Cut your purchases by 50 percent, by doing without the rubbish, then be prepared to pay a premium on everything else you buy. Shop exclusively at family-owned stores, which must charge more because they cannot negotiate Walmart-scale wholesale prices. They also pay hideous rent to ruthless landlords, face malicious and frequently corrupt regulators from municipal, provincial, and federal agencies, bleed lifeblood to the sadistic tax collectors, and must humour customers who are possibly insane. They die like flies when a franchise operation moves in next door, blazoning signage to make them invisible — including flyer and lifestyle advertising, designed and lab-tested to inculcate Pavlovian “demand.”

To compensate, the family enterprise stocks goods not available elsewhere. Staff are apt to know what the item is, and where it came from; how to cook it, or what the better alternative might be. Having recognized their customer by name. Indeed, one comes to know them — to know when, “It’s a girl!”; that it’s Alex’s bar-mitzvah, or Jimmy’s graduation, or Andrea’s getting married; that Uncle Tomas has died. I am thinking here much less of mom-and-pop “variety stores” — selling trinkets, sweets, and lottery tickets to the local underclass, sometimes at the risk of their lives — than of specialized provisioners from butchers to costermongers, whose goods are also more likely to be fresh; and which, when they aren’t, rot honestly in the absence of all the conventional industrial preservatives.

Immigrants are especially to be recommended as shopkeepers: a constant reminder that few foreign cultures are as lazy as ours, or as disgusting in their eating habits. Though in the farmer’s markets I find there are still some white people capable of intelligent work, as opposed to time-serving.

For machines, and staff trained to emulate them, cannot match their service. To be a person, rather than a mechanism interacting with a mechanism, is already half the way to Catholic. Moreover, one may acquire the capacity for self-loathing, which is the only known cure for self-esteem, and which can potentially take one the rest of the way home.

Benedict options

Typically, people who don’t know anything about a subject, can’t know that they don’t know anything about it, and thus, the suggestion that they don’t know is lost on them. One cannot “debate” with a log. It is, as I have hinted before, a problem of “democracy,” with its doctrine that everyone has an equal right to an opinion, and the majority will rule — contradicting itself should it so will from moment to moment, even on the most fundamental questions of right and wrong, while acknowledging no responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of each act.

Or rather, it is not a doctrine but a conceit, demonstrated in the manipulation of people by the mass media of news and entertainment, and their favoured politicians and judges. Note, for instance, the speed at which an overwhelming majority opposed to “gay marriage,” able easily to win referenda in state after state, was converted in a couple of election cycles to gleeful, voluble, “homophilia.” One side of a soi-disant “debate” was suddenly raised in volume, the arguments of the other denied, until a tsunami was formed to wash away the surviving civilized benchmarks.

In the course of this wash-over, in which the procreative significance of marriage was buried in the mud, the true history of the development was clarified. “No sex without babies, no babies without sex” (a rule-of-thumb for the Catholic position, once shared by all Christians), was first uprooted by the promotion of contraception. Sex, which in natural law is oriented to a primary purpose — the conception of children — was deflected to another purpose, the fulfilment of lust. This was then advanced through song dance and the movies, with a glibness that would once have beggared the imagination of any decent soul. The terms “love” and “sex” are now used interchangeably. Thus, the “right” to marry any person with whom one is currently fornicating is established in law. It became the right to marry whomever you “love” — and then divorce and remarry with mandatory public approval, and the State’s bureaucratic sanction.

Or from another angle, it was a dramatic victory for “consumerism.” This was brought home to me most recently when I went to withdraw some money from a bank machine, and while I waited for the computer to confirm my password, was shown a cartoon of the bank’s mascot (a little bowler-hatted man) waving the rainbow flag and cheering on this year’s “Pride Parade.”

Bankers can discern the colour of money, and do not take excessive risks when they have any choice. More generally, “corporate America,” which formerly had nothing to say about sex, beyond sentimental affirmations of family to promote mortgages, extra spending, and consumer debt — and had no opinions on things like “gay marriage” until the day before yesterday — have now made a cynical calculation. They have little to lose and much to gain, buying into this latest trend towards social atomism. “Capitalists,” in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, have a big stake in disposable income. The small-income family, with children and religious commitments, is not the side on which their bread is buttered, and serious moral questions lie outside their chosen domain. The DINKS (“double income, no kids”) now rule, are extremely vain, and given to moral posturing. The flattering, supportive, sanctimony from the bank thus makes it easier to pick off this primary marketing target with consumer loans.

Government tax collectors share the same point-of-view, or have come to share it since the whole idea of thinking more than a few revenue quarters ahead, or one election cycle, has come to guide all statist thinking. Children don’t pay taxes; there will be another government by the time they have grown up. Meanwhile the pension demographics point to the next progressive social frontier, which is the promotion of “euthanasia.”

Those who do think ahead, are the “environmentalists,” who have discovered that they can capture government policy, and corporate lip-service too, with the same focus. The earth’s carrying capacity is taken as strictly finite, and the challenge is to cut down the human population to a more profitable “core.” Contraception, sterilization, abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, and any other scheme that can “decrease the surplus population,” is a progressive cause — the “culture of death” as John-Paul II called it, with searing accuracy — and since the non-monied classes are those immediately slated for extinction, who among the monied will object?

Only those, as I say, with some human decency, and the ability to think the implications through — a small and shrinking minority at present. We cannot prevail in any vote, nor dominate any mass market. We have suddenly become “internal exiles,” who might move to another country if we could, but there is nowhere to go that is not also “globalizing.”

Moreover, the “Benedict Option,” proposed by Rod Dreher and getting some modest discussion (see here), contains a fatal flaw. It holds that in the footsteps of Benedict of Nursia (c.480–543), we should beat a new monastic retreat. But several writers have spotted the problem: that Benedict and company had the luxury of not being pursued by a modern, “inclusive” Nanny State, with its GPS technology. Today, such a retreat would have to be negotiated with that State, which is to say, conceded by our enemies.

Yet the idea is basically sound — that to be exemplary and positive, rather than just rebelliously negative, we must find ways to live with a degree of independence from the “servile state” at least equal to what all citizens enjoyed a few short generations ago. Background conditions being different, the methods of our withdrawal will be different: we must find ways to live independently of this devil, as it were, right under his nose.

That, I think, is worth some practical attention. How, for instance, to arrange cash transactions that cut out commercial banks? To exclude large corporations, as much as possible, to the benefit of small family firms? To obviate or elude government regulation? To conserve wealth in forms the State cannot easily inflate or seize? How to reduce our “footprint” in the statistical economy, so that we become less visible to corporate and government trackers, and more important, remove ourselves from moral complicity in a public order that is less and less ambiguously satanic?

Moreover, how to do it so attractively that we will inspire people to follow us, thus helping not only to destroy the Nanny State and its corporate and financial affiliates, but to rebuild a civilization worthy of what was assigned by God to the Estate of Man?

Omnes gentes

We are getting ahead of ourselves, up here in the High Doganate: giving our lay sermon on today’s (usus antiquior) Gospel text last Monday; visiting Pluto five days before the American spacecraft; anticipating Saturday’s talking points on “Grexit,” Friday. At the old Idler magazine we would flag articles we had written years before, on topics only now in the headlines, and boast: “If you can’t wait for the newspapers, read it all here.”

So with the Gospel covered, let us try to expound the Epistle in today’s Mass, from Saint Paul to the Romans, touching on the mystery of our iniquity:

“Brethren: I speak a human thing, because of the infirmity of your flesh; for as you have yielded your members to serve uncleanness and iniquity unto iniquity so now yield your members to serve justice unto sanctification. For when you were the servants of sin, you were free men to justice. What fruit therefore had you then in those things, of which you are now ashamed? For the end of them is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end, life everlasting. For the wages of sin is death. But the grace of God is life everlasting; in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

One might almost say he is commenting on our own pagan, post-Christian mores, looking forward through Christian eyes; though in the text he looks back to the pagan, pre-Christian Romans. “Uncleanness” seems a gentle, rather elderly English term, for the condition of our souls. Really it is not gentle at all, gents. We still know what it is physically to live in filth. The modern West is obsessively hygienic, and changes the bedsheets when they are soiled; but is indifferent to spiritual cleanliness. With the passage of time, we find it harder to imagine people who lived in acute discomfort from a knowledge of their sins. Our tactic is to stay free of that knowledge.

I remember this vividly from childhood, when I was in the culturally Protestant environment of a small Ontario town. There were a few Catholics, perhaps five families of which I was aware. All adhered to the stereotype of large, extended and poor. Some of them compounded their isolation by being able to speak French. The culture was already post-religious, but the notion that Catholics were dirty people had survived the transition. So had the habit of excluding Catholics from social clubs, including business management. They took jobs in the brewery (a low-wage employer), or in one case (that of an Italian immigrant family), raised rabbits in their backyard, and were somehow able to manage a fruit and vegetable shop on Main Street. It was open at the front, and fine Protestant ladies would spot flies on the bananas.

Though hardly born into the Catholic fold, I was a genetic freak: for as long as I can remember I have been “pro-Catholic.” It may have run in the family: my parents told me to play with the Catholic kids — and with Jews, if I could find any. They made a point themselves of mixing across the race-line, and buying anything a Catholic man was peddling from door to door (desperately trying to feed his family), such as powdered milk (the bags of which piled up in our basement). And from the age of nine, when I first fell in love, I noticed Catholic girls were prettier. (My Beatrice carried the name, Liddy; she did not approve of me, however, and said her mother had warned I’d be going to Hell with all the other Protestant children.)

More history could be divulged, but I have focused upon this fragment only to remember the North American meme, that Catholics were dirty people. And let me add, they knew it. And with large families, they always had colds. But for Mass, all dressed in their ill-fitting Sunday best, and the girls under lace mantillas. And all that wonderful kitsch hanging on Catholic walls, so adverse to the metastasizing suburban Bauhaus. The thought of them, queueing for Confession, brought strange fancies to young Protestant minds.

To this day, I wake some mornings with the thought, “Good Lord, I’m a Catholic.” Some drollness must be understood, for it is recited in the tone of, “omigod I have leprosy.”

And sometimes I think, perhaps, I joined just as all of them were leaving, “in the spirit of Vatican II.” One by one, or one thousand by another thousand, they grew into North Americans, nostalgic for, but also ashamed of their background — “recovering Catholics” determined not to be excluded from a world that, as Liddy’s mother said, was going straight to Hell.

The sense, not that the people down the road are dirty, but that one is filthy oneself, is now bred out of the children in their schools if not in their homes. In the ’sixties, “guilt” was made into a target, and “acceptance” might be the term today. This does not mean acceptance of all others, for “traditional” Catholics are treated just the same. It means self-acceptance; liberation from guilt. If, for instance, one has sexual appetites of the kind once condemned as perverted, the instruction now is to self-celebrate, to march in a parade as the Orangemen used to do. Morality requires only that you practise “safe sex” with condoms, follow the dietary trends, and maintain an outward show of smiley-face niceness, like a bank teller.

Sex is always news in our mass porno culture, but down below the headline events, it is the same interminable story. What applies to sex, applies less noisily to everything else. It is expressed through omnipresent lifestyle advertising: “You deserve a break today.” Break follows break, and the shards of our civilization are dissolving into dark wet dirty sand. This, as Pope Benedict observed, is the key environmental problem.

That we are living in filth. That we are proud of it.

Cat’s cradle

A Spanish bishop, José Ignacio Munilla of San Sebastián, tweeted the picture of the pope being presented with a hammer-and-sickle crucifix by Bolivia’s Marxist president. His remark was: “The height of pride is to manipulate God in the service of atheist ideologies.” It is good to know we still have bishops who understand that.

Several correspondents have begged me to comment on the pope’s current adventures in Ecuador, Bolivia, and now Paraguay. I don’t want to.

Everything is being reported through the poison mist of the mass media. This includes quotes from Pope Francis’s homilies and speeches which may or may not be correctly translated, but which invariably omit crucial qualifications. To the Devil, whom I believe to be editor-in-chief of this world’s mass media (both Left and Right) — quotes are important. He would prefer to get them right: as accurate as possible, in order to be as misleading as possible. Example:

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

That is an accurate quote; but if we leave out “searches for the Lord and has good will” it means something other than what was more completely said. If anyone searches for the Lord and has good will — God bless him. The pope might then have added, “And if he is sexually disordered, whether outwardly ‘gay’ or ‘straight’, he will be struggling with the divine command for chastity.” The pope didn’t say that, but would, from everything he has ever said, most certainly agree with it. Nor is there any likelihood at all that the pope is going to change his “opinion,” which is incumbent upon every “son of the Church,” as it has been these last twenty centuries.

We cannot judge what we cannot know; we cannot read the interior soul of any other human being, except in glimpses, and then only through genuine, holy love. But we can know what is Church doctrine, and it is wrong to confuse it. It is also wrong to be reckless in stating it; to “play to the gallery” in a selective way. And this is especially dangerous when the gallery is full of journalists, animated by malice for the Catholic Church.

Many of the remarks made by the pope, especially in Bolivia, may be all but incomprehensible to an observer who knows little about the intense game being played there between Church and State — with its long, long history. The same, however, in Ecuador and now Paraguay, though the games and the histories vary from country to country. And the pope’s remarks do vary with the terrain.

Reading this week something on the extraordinary history of Paraguay, I began to get a clearer view of where Bergoglio was coming from, long before he became pope. It is like a good joke, where “you have to be there” to understand the punch lines fully. But when one is not the local bishop, but pope, I should think reticence would be wise. For when the remarks reach the outside world, through the filters, there will be terrible misunderstandings, and worse perhaps, terrible understandings.

A pope must present the Catholic Christian faith, universally. That is why he must remain so far as possible aloof from passing political issues; and moreover, be well and broadly informed when he must wade in — and then, not in a general “theoretical” way, but on some very specific point that needs addressing, with clarity. Usually, alas, it is something that must be condemned, and there will be no room to dance around the point. The point must be made so there can be no confusion, and every phrase must be weighed to that end.

He will inevitably be a creature of his time and place, as the pope is so obviously, as political thinker, a product of Peronist Argentina. He cannot help that, yet must constantly remember it. I am myself such a product, of different time and place. Even when I oppose a current “trend,” I am in some sense captured by it, and even my English language puts blinkers on me. We should indeed struggle to free ourselves from temporal narrowness and parochialism, but we are human and cannot break entirely free.

Joseph Ratzinger was very German, G.K. Chesterton very English. A friend writes this morning of reading the former’s Introduction to Christianity, and the latter’s Everlasting Man, back to back. He was struck how, from such different backgrounds, the two men came to essentially the same “grand philosophy of history.” The question is whether Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, from his inevitably Argentine perspective, and using the tools at his command, also leads us to the common universal.

There is a great deal of truth in much of the pope’s “critique of capitalism,” and from what I can make out a great deal of confusion, too, leading to falsehood. (For instance, to blame the capitalists for creating material poverty is to get it precisely backwards; they have created instead an empty and spiritually eviscerating wealth.) What I found in my own recent tour of his environmental encyclical, for instance, was a cat’s cradle through which are woven many golden strands. My instinct is to take the gold and burn the rest away, less because it is wrong, than because it is not useful; that engaging too carefully with the wool only complicates the tangle.

In the meanwhile, go to Mass, and cultivate the key Catholic Christian relationship, which was never with the pope of the moment, but will always be with Jesus Christ.

The avian gourmand

Yairs. … The first commentator upon my piece today at Catholic Thing (here), the learned Michael Paterson-Seymour, suggests my “review and outlook” for Greece is too optimistic. The notion that they might recover cannot be right. For any way you look at it, they’re in checkmate. The average age in that country is now greater than that of Alexis Tsipras; the average woman bears only one child and one-third; there aren’t enough left of child-bearing age to reverse the trend towards extinction, and as the gentleman so delicately puts it, “By the end of the century, their language will be spoken exclusively in hell.”

They could still be “Euro-rescued,” indeed: but that is the worst thing that could happen, over a longer term that is growing ever shorter.

Yet, in the daily evolution of the news, we are told that Angela Merkel is blinking, that the French have undermined German resolve, that some sort of “package” may still be hashed together, since the Greeks are getting scared, and learning to say “please.” Notwithstanding Greek promises have been false in the past, and those of Greek socialists are notoriously worthless, and this latest lot of Greek socialists is exceptionally irresponsible — their bankers are expected to take them at their word, on their latest promises to “reform.” This time, we are to suppose, they won’t just take the money and run until the next crisis meeting.

I should think a banker who would consider offering such as Tsipras and Syriza a last-minute bailout, is just not a man.

And Angela (with that delicious hard-G), well, “at least she’s a woman,” as a Canadian parliamentarian once replied, when heckled across the floor that he was “in bed with Thatcher.” … While offensively Prussian in moments, she has an “iron lady” reputation that strikes me as unearned. … She has noticed that German taxpayers are picking up the tab for Greek pensioners who get more than Germans. … How dare she wimp out! …


Now seriously, gentle reader, we are being reminded that there is truly no way out — no foreseeable practical and material escape — from the Nanny State web we have woven. Except by catastrophe, and/or miracle. My fascination with Greece is, as I have said, to see what happens as that state breaks down. Greece is unrepresentative in some ways; she never was a truly Western country, and thus even her way of abandoning the Christian faith is different from the Western. Since the West freed her from the Infidel Turk, Greece has had the luxury to pick and choose between spiritual destinies. The West offered three: the Catholic, the Protestant, and the Revolutionary. Greece chose to dress her post-Byzantine, Orthodox self in the robes of Marianne, goddess of fake Liberty. They don’t fit, can’t, and she has experienced one wardrobe malfunction after another. Whereas the French, whom she most likes to emulate, at least know how to carry off satanic modernism in style.

Notwithstanding, the material facts of Nanny State are universal, and Greece can now serve as an illustration of their consequences — for the simple reason that she has made more mistakes, faster, than any other European country.

My fondest hope was that the failure of Greece would provoke a genuine re-assessment of the European Union. My worst fear is that it would instead make Europe’s commissars circle their wagon (the EU flag unintentionally represents this), and advance the continental nannyism in the vain belief that they can somehow save it. This, I observe, is what most likely happens. Or to put this another way, for the third time in a century, Europe has embarked on a mission of self-destruction, and will not turn back.

The correct response, to my humble mind, would have been on two fronts. First, to acknowledge that Greece can’t pay, and therefore write off the debts. Let them start again from scratch, according to their lights, providing whatever humanitarian aid can be afforded, but making clear it is a gift, and therefore delivering it through visibly European (and North American) agencies. Never let anyone think he is receiving gifts by right, and thus confuse gifts with payment. But don’t kick Greece out of anything; they have as much right to use euros while unwinding as the Argentines had to use U.S. dollars through their last bankruptcy. In defiance of post-modern sentimentalism, I would say it is possible to be both charitable, and firm.

Second, to begin a peaceful disassembly of most of the pan-European scheme, including the euro currency, which doesn’t and can’t work. Restore marks, francs, lire, pesetas; but also gradually downsize the Brussels bureaucracy to what it can and did do reasonably well — as a clearing house for trade transactions. This would be sane, now the ambition of a “European nation” is proved to have been foolish in itself. It would be insane, politically, to leave it to the member countries’ respective nationalist lunatics to achieve the same end by jingo, with the violence that follows inevitably from that.

It is in this greater (political, not religious) light that I think another bailout for Greece is a horror. It means Europe’s politicians are accelerating down a blind alley — the political equivalent of “the spirit of Vatican II.”


I stand accused, by a most solemn and condescending correspondent, of mistreating my finches. Not only do I demand of them conformity to my Weltanschauung — a reasonable exchange, I would have thought, for my unending supply of sunflower seeds. (I care not what they think, or even what they say, elsewhere; so long as heresies are not chirped upon my balconata.) It is suggested that I am not providing them with a well-balanced diet.

This lady keeps finches herself — in a cage. Consider that, gentle reader. They are a poor pair of Gouldian finches, locked in that prison. A cage, mind you — open to inspection and gawping from all sides. And a pair — arbitrarily forced into co-habitation. A finch must choose his own mate; of this I am assured by all my avian acquaintances. They do not appreciate an arranged marriage.

I am told that I must vary my seeds, that I must mix sunflower with safflower, rapeseed, flax, whatever. That, rather than such filler as millets (which I have already abandoned, as ground feed), I should be providing “millet spray” for my finches to joyfully pick away at. (I’ll perhaps consider it.) That they need protein from some boiled egg mixture. (Does she think they are cannibals?) That they need live insects. (But plenty volunteer themselves.) That I should buy pellets from some wretched pet store. (No person of the authentically Scotch coloration would enter such a place.) That they want leafy greens to shred apart. That I should choose brightly-coloured vegetables and fruits, and grate apples for them, and broccoli, and carrots, and so on through the alphabet. And then clean up after, lest any of this feast start rotting.

My finches will continue to get sunflower seeds — and those only of the striped variety, which offend the beaks of the pigeons. No soft-shelled “black oil” varieties from me. And they will take them raw, unsalted, and unsorted. And if they defect to some liberal’s birdfeeder, good riddance to them. I want only Tory birds on my balconata, who take what they can get then push off.

These are not Greek finches, lady.

No Nanny State up here in the High Doganate!

Visiting Pluto

The American spacecraft, New Horizons, launched almost a decade ago, is as of this Earth morning, some two billion miles away on the other side of our Sun. It is approaching Pluto at an extraordinary speed, on a trajectory that will this coming Tuesday pass over the planet by less than eight thousand miles, before spinning off farther into the Kuiper belt. Aboard, it has equipment including cameras to gather more than one thousand times the data Mariner IV could assimilate during the first planetary fly-past, of Mars fifty years ago.

Those of my age will remember that childhood excitement: perhaps the most dramatic moment in exploration until the manned voyages to the Moon. Extraordinary vistas were opening; the “conquest of space” seemed to be at hand. But now, instead of 12 or 13 minutes, we wait more than five hours for the pictures to return; and the universe seems once again to be spreading out of our reach, far away. (God be with our little spaceship! Keep her online for us through the pass!)

I gather it contains various mementos, including one ounce of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh (1906–97), who discovered Planet Pluto in 1930. (It has been reclassified recently as a “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union, but I invite gentle reader to ignore those killjoys.) Tombaugh was also a prolific discoverer of asteroids, and a flying saucer enthusiast.

Too, let me add, a skilled astronomical draughtsman, whose sketches of what he saw of Mars and Jupiter through his telescopes are heritage property, to be carefully preserved. Drawings remain more detailed and informative than photographs, because the trained human eye can pick out features that film and pixels tend to blur. On the other hand, the human mind can be unaccountably whimsical, and can in this case work only with the material that optical equipment supplies. The closer the view, the more that can be seen, and it is a pity that today NASA uses draughtsmen only for garish, scientifictional publicity pictures. I attribute this to the general creeping scientism; they also toy with Earth climate data to get more sensational results.

In an old class yearbook, from when I was eleven, my “ambition in life” is marked down as astronomer. Under “fate,” the class wag added, bird watcher.

Pluto I recall as a particular enchantment, and somewhere in my files there may still be a short, scientifictional story I wrote around that time, on a manned voyage to Pluto. I was rather staggered by the plot, on returning to it decades later; for I had all but forgotten a brief “born again” period from my childhood, before the “evangelical atheism” of my adolescence set in. It was a time when I carried a Gideon pocket New Testament around with me, wherever I went, with the intent of memorizing the whole thing, like a good madrasah pupil. (Alas, the New Testament is longer than the Koran, and less rhythmic.)


The astronauts in my story, after a ten-year voyage, including fly-pasts of planets known to be uninhabited, found a whole civilization in this unlikely place. They were welcomed, cautiously, upon landing among the Plutonians; but had little initial success in conversing with these intelligent creatures, who stood less than a cubit high, and had skins so thick they seemed to be in spacesuits themselves, under their woolly garments; gills for ears, tiny mouths like nostrils, the swivelling eyes of chameleons; relating with each other apparently by eye contact alone. There were birds, too, smaller than our hummingbirds, but with long thin tapering wings; and the strangest array of moss-sized plants and sparkling tiny flowers, what looked like bonsai trees, and grains no taller than unmowed lawn grass — growing about a little town in neatly-kept fields, and waving gently in the thin atmosphere.

Into this small, walled community all went, Plutonians leading, and our Earthling giants following — slowly and carefully climbing over the gates, and choosing only the widest boulevards to avoid damaging the diminutive habitations. Bowls the size of shot glasses were being filled with a Plutonian wine, to offer our visitors. Prelates in gorgeous gowns were striding forward on what resembled miniature camels, and silent anxious crowds were emerging from the houses.

The astronauts moved compulsively towards the largest building, at the centre of this compact metropolis. It was almost Romanesque in design, and had three stone towers, standing one hundred feet high. At the top of each they noticed a Cross. The story concluded with a line one astronaut spoke to another:

“He’s been here, too!”

The family & the sludge

In my view, and that of my colleagues up here in the High Doganate — the finches, &c (I’ve made clear to them that their continued supply of sunflower seeds depends entirely on their agreement with my political and theological opinions) — there is simply no nutrition to be had from the mass media. Let us take Ecuador for example.

A friend forwarded two links from that virtual country. One item was the text of Pope Francis’s address to a very large rally (a million people), on the subject of the family, turning on a reading from the marriage at Cana, and upon his insistence with Mother Mary that, in defiance of general expectation, “the best wine is yet to come.” It was a marvellous homily — exactly what a pope or any priest should say, free of heresy and striking a beautiful balance between the mundane and the mystical. The other item was the report on it from the “news” network, CNN.

This latter bore no resemblance to what was said. It was full of the journalist’s own semi-demented views on the evolution of family life, and his hallucination that the pope secretly agrees with him. The headline, “Pope says families need a miracle, hints at ‘scandalous’ changes for the church,” gives a fair summary. A journalist with any idea of Bergoglio’s previous remarks on this “evolution” — total opposition to it — could not have written anything so perverse and silly. For in this case, as in all others, the pope was defending the “traditional” family (mommy, daddy, children and so forth) against the modern world:

“The family is the nearest hospital; when a family member is ill, it is in the home that they are cared for as long as possible. The family is the first school for the young, the best home for the elderly. The family constitutes the best ‘social capital’. It cannot be replaced by other institutions. It needs to be helped and strengthened.”

I am not, however, under the impression that the “news” article does much harm. The disorientation comes from the multiplication of such articles, and other forms of ignorant and often malicious reportage, and every other kind of callow entertainment, on every conceivable topic; and the fact that, from a very early age, the children of each family are exposed to this poisonous sludge for more hours than they will ever be exposed to their mother and/or father and/or any other guide. This produces in turn, by adolescence at the latest, minds full of poisonous sludge, and contributes thereby to the collapse of civilization.

Let it be said that the solution to this problem is not for the Church to “change with the times.” Surrender to evil is not a solution. The Church wars against the dark forces contriving to dissolve the “traditional” family, and by the instruction of Christ, there can be no surrender. Let it further be said that for all his reckless indulgence in the extempore, the pope does actually get this, and has expressed it repeatedly, with wheels on.

Similarly, the great evil of proposals to tinker at the edges of Church doctrine, in family synods and the like, may not come from any single conference or sound bite. Such proposals will be finally shot down. They instead come from the distraction they offer to the main battle, in which we must somehow restore and uphold that family in its normative, integral, timeless, sanctified, and thus “traditional” form. Even Cardinal Kasper will give beak service to this.


Margarine (or, “oleo” as I prefer to call it, from its traditional use in the white trash cookery of the American South) is a succedaneum for butter. Coffee, for some, is a succedaneum for tea, and vice versa for others. You could call it a cheap substitute, but then people would understand, and you would miss the pleasure of being wilfully obscure; whereas only the closet etymologists among my gentle readers will immediately discern that the word is derived from the Latin succedaneus (succedo + aneus), which means, “acting as substitute”; and that it may have accidentally imported a rather coprophagic Latin pun.

From the marvellous website, The Imaginative Conservative, I can recommend an article that commands only one Google hit. Enter the word “succedaneanism” and there it will be, on its lonely own, so spotless and virgin. I regret this Idlepost threatens to halve its exclusivity. The idea that the author, Ralph Ancil, was pulling legs, occurred to me. But on closer examination I see that he does not have to: for he is president of the Roepke Institute, at Geneva College, in Beaver Falls. Attentive readers of this Idleblog will already know my opinion of the economist Wilhelm Roepke. (Positive.) One might describe him as the reason Germany had so much money to lend Greece.

(In passing to my Greek critics: the article by Thomas Piketty that is making the rounds, because he says Germany itself benefited from a huge bailout after the Second World War, is like most everything else that French economist writes: extremely misleading. By a succadaneum of apples for oranges, he lies. The Allies wrote off Germany’s debts from the First World War, after the Second one, in 1953. They could do that because the assets corresponding to the debt had meanwhile melted down, from war and hyperinflation. Germany’s then-current debts were retained, on more favourable terms, such as the bankers had already offered Greece. When the euro becomes worthless, yes the bankers can wipe out the Greek debt as a nuisance to bookkeeping. But for the moment, that euro is not worthless, or people wouldn’t be queueing for small samples of it at the cash machines.)

Now, back to Perfesser Ancil. He identifies, or if you will, names, “succadaneanism” for a dangerous ideology, aimed like all the Devil’s other works at the deconstruction of morals and society. His (Ancil’s, not the Devil’s) primary example is the substitution of “virtual things,” for things. It is an historic glide. One might say it began in the Industrial Revolution, when the old monkish (and universal) notion of laborare est orare (“to work is to pray”) was replaced with the new notion of the interchangeable factory worker, who makes a product separated from himself, who does work that is demeaning, on a production line, and only for money, which he looks forward to spending on the weekend when he is free of his crummy job.

“Things” cease to be particular and become commodities. The commodities “evolve” into virtualities. The “humans” evolve into commodities themselves — into statistics — and at the frontiers of our scientistic technology, we also become “virtual” things.

Or in a phrase, reality is being systematically replaced by abstractions in our “information age.” In the article I recommend, the implications of this are sketched out to the meaning of work, the nature of consumption, the understanding of land and community, the use of money, and the destruction of every simple and comprehensible definition in economic thought.

“The ideology of suc­ceda­neanism disintegrates man morally, psychically, physi­cally, and economically, all in a veritable orgy of impiety with impunity. This is not surprising since long ago, the most bald expres­sion of succeda­neanism was the substitution of vice for virtue. Only by keeping a vision of the principles of a humane economy rigor­ous­ly in mind can we be saved from this tragedy of succeda­neanism.”

Hear, hear!

Political purposes

“By their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”

Jesus was something of an “aggie,” and this is one of his farming metaphors, keyed to conditions in the Palestine of His ministry, but easily understood anywhere else that botany is experienced. On the surface, rather, it is easy to understand; but then it goes deeper. That He meant it to be read “both ways” — as both piety and doctrine — is clinched within the Sermon on the Mount, where He repeats the phrase and now adds that not everyone who saith “Lord” to Him will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only those who have done the will of the Father.

“Thy will be done,” is perhaps the most aggressive phrase in the Lord’s Prayer. “On earth as it is in heaven.” As one of the Scotch genetic persuasion, a people of the thistle, I like sometimes to pronounce it in a Scottish brogue. The Calvinists and Catholics of those Highlands and Islands shared in that Gaelic brogue: the sense that some things need doing; or even that they cannot be put off. They may not have got “which things need doing” always right, however.

In the East, John Chrysostom took the view that the “fruits” were piety. Don’t listen to a man who speaks pretty, but is living an ugly life. In the West, Augustine of Hippo thought the fruits more doctrinal. If what the man prettily speaks is not in accord with Christ’s teaching, it is wrong and pay no attention to him. I have oversimplified both views. Both are right, and there is plenty more meaning, that tends to surface on unexpected occasions, when in my experience both propositions are engaged. The man lives an ugly life; he speaks pretty, but it is not what anyone could reasonably call, “orthodox.”

And contrary to the currently received view, there is seldom any subtlety in it. The man makes the fact he is a blackguard dead obvious to those with eyes and ears. Each failing points to the other, and the first observed perversion hints at many more. I am (or, we are) left with no excuse for being seduced by yet another false prophet.

No names here, since I am actually trying not to be invidious. Not even the names of politicians, who are right out there in the public eye and, as it were, asking for judgement; many come to mind. Gentle reader will anyway have an idea, to what kind of “Pharisees” Christ was referring.

That we should avoid eating thorns and thistles, I take as generally accepted. The knowledge is likely to be recovered, if lost. Grapes and figs taste considerably better, and are easier to swallow and digest. But as the adage was metaphorical, I will further take it that the question of digestion is cast very large. In reflecting upon the charismatic politician and his message one must ask, not him but oneself: How does this sit with me? What do I think of this man who presents himself as some kind of prophet, or guide, demanding my support for his mission? Why should I believe anything he says? Why should I trust this keeper with my freedom?

And perhaps he cannot be stopped; but as I pleaded yesterday, the world is as it is. The trick for a person who takes responsibility, is to reduce himself to an accountable minority of one. (Accountable to Whom? one might ask. Question answered by the cap.) It may be up to one’s enemies to decide what will be done with you, if you are in their way when they get power. But it is also up to God, what will be done with those enemies, in the fullness of time, and beyond it. One hardly wants to get in His way.

We only strive down here; we never achieve anything. For there is nothing we do here that will not be washed away in the same temporal medium. The striving, as we know from Christ, directly if we are listening, is to holiness and salvation before all other things — but this in turn requires an “attitude” to neighbours as well as to Our Lord.

It is conventional, for politicians upon winning elections, to declare that they are “humbled” by the experience. There you see a fruit.

No one who felt genuinely humbled would say this. He might show it, quite subtly perhaps, in how he behaved; it does not and cannot go into words, without becoming boastful. I use this example with something approaching warmth, for I have developed an allergy or aversion — a rash of the sort that comes from passing through brambles — when men in public positions make a show of their “humility.” It is invariably pharisaic; it is a warning that one is dealing with profound arrogance, and a vanity that is out of control. He speaks with crowds, but cannot keep his virtue.

“Democracy” encourages almost every vice — using the word in its broadest modern sense, which includes a certain notion of “freedom” from the restraints of ancient law. It associates the public good with visible public “achievements” — which I will take in the heraldic sense, of full display: crest, torse, mantling, helm, coronet, supporters; motto and badge.

Yet every good thing I have ever seen done in politics, was achieved quietly, and I think invariably by a man or woman who was not seeking credit for the act. This happens. Good things happen, as well as bad. Indeed: it is amazing what can be accomplished, even in politics, by the person who does not seek the credit, but wills the good end for itself. This is genuine humility.

With it goes a frankly mediaeval judgement of what politics are for. They are to accommodate the citizen, in his divine calling, whatever that may be, for the callings are as various as the people. It is, at the minimum, to avoid hindering him, in doing what is right, good, beautiful and salvific.

But that requires some judgement in turn, of what a divine calling might be; and genuine humility in the practice and presence of Our Lord to see it clearly. One must, as my father used to put it, “Go with God,” and as I would add, by the Light that God has given.