Essays in Idleness


Signs of the times

Often I wonder how it was that I managed to stay out of the Catholic Church, until the age of fifty. I suppose it was much the way my ancestors stayed out, for centuries. They found Christianity fairly obvious, back then, but the claims of Rome less so. Or even if they saw the claims, still could make excuses. Notwithstanding, one thing leads to another.

In my view (that so prevails at this website) it is the “mystical” aspect of Christianity that so repelled them, and attracts me. This is what filled the monasteries both East and West, and works also to retrieve people over the bridge of Evangelicalism. In quite different ways, Calvinism and Lutheranism and State Anglicanism and their various mainstream disestablished Episcopal, Baptist, Congregational, and Methodist successors (I’m sorry if I’ve left anyone out) worked to undermine it — through iconoclasm, rationalism, nationalism, and so forth. But that is some vast topic, which revisionist historians like Eamon Duffy have only begun to survey.

Little people like me have been pulled to Rome, modern historically, partly because the common war on Rome faltered, with the collapse of mainstream Protestant congregations. Most of course drifted away to post-Christian hedonism and fey atheism (“agnosticism”), or to the myriad pseudo-religious consumer cults. A revived New Age gnosticism, too, became popular, often masquerading as Buddhism. (Not the Buddhists’ fault, they assure me.) Today the old Puritan impulse, where it survives or is rekindled, pulls towards radical Islam. (The old Scots Presbyters were much like the Taliban.) It is a bewildering disintegration, out there, but also inside the Roman Church, “in the spirit of Vatican II,” where mainstream Protestantism is making its last stand.

Gentle reader must know all this already, however.

My point is only that there are those moments at the fulcrum, where one in effect has no religion at all, and nothing to listen to, except the Holy Spirit. This puts him in great danger of falling into a very traditional and orthodox Roman Catholicism, that will leave all his respectable Protestant ancestors spinning in their graves.


There is already too much autobiography in these Idleposts, I will try to suppress a full chronology today, but when I look back I see that opportunities and motives “to pope” were there almost continuously from early childhood forward, along with little revelations. But rather than read, as it were, these “signs of the times,” I found some way to deflect or ignore them.

Here I am using the quoted phrase in a slightly unusual way. I am not thinking of such a thing as an event in a chronological sequence, or “narrative”; nor as the moral of a story, supplied at the end; though I’m not excluding those aspects entirely. Rather I am thinking of a moment “outside time,” though of course it must have intersected with time, for the “event” had a temporal location, and I am nothing if not temporal myself. Art, great art and poetry, captures and communicates such moments, or translates a divine mystical form into something less mystically human and tangible.

(All great art is essentially religious.)


It is the year of grace 1972. I am nineteen, and waking in a little attic room, as self-imagined poet in a garret. The sun is rising on a warm midsummer day, and outside the window is that morning light, and thick ivy. Sparrows are chirping in that ivy, a flock in the leaves chatting merrily all at once. This was a sign of the times.

Suddenly the world seemed very ancient, and very new. It came into my head as my eyes were opening, and the light streaking above the floorboards, that I was reclining in Paradise. There are sparrows like this in Paradise, I thought. (I was unquestionably an atheist at the time.) Not ancient, specifically, nor new, but immortal, I thought. I had a theological idea. This moment on Earth is itself immortal, in the sense that it is meant to be, but also in the sense that it is undeniable. The world will pass away, but the memory of this event will not pass, as it were, “in the mind of God.” The sparrows on the leaves are immortal, every note they have uttered “just so.” They hatched, they spawned, they will die; but forever, they will have been. They cannot be effaced, from having been; they will always have been, just here, in the immensity. No tyrant, no accident, can take them away.

This led to a little logical quandary. If this is so, I thought, in a budding scholastic way, the arrow of time must be an illusion. But it can only be so, because it is not an illusion. For it was something not imagined and “abstract” but constructed from the indisputably real and corporally present. For now I do not mean the moment itself — the short space occupied within a single second — but each and every living sparrow, each growing leaf, and every particle of dust floating in the air. All were unmistakably real, and each will always have been, here, in the co-ordinates of this moment. I could “prove” this, easily to myself, because I was here, too.

Perhaps these things are hard to describe.

“Nothing is lost.” That was the “moral,” if you will, that I took from that moment, and as I say, it was “a sign of the times,” vouchsafed to me by the Heaven, by the Grace of God, as I now realize. Yet no empire had crumbled, and the sky had not turned red.

So many people, even in my inbox, are almost in a state of despair about “the way things are going.” It would sound glib to say, “Don’t worry about it.” The Biblical expression is less glib. It is voiced as an angelic command: “Fear not.”


Or a little later in time, when I found myself lying in a hospital bed, in a lung ward (this was before I took up smoking), with old men around me, all terminal cases with lung cancer, and I had watched one die earlier in the evening right across from me — paradoxically, of a heart attack. (I rang the buzzer; staff got there quick; but he was dead already.) This man had spent the whole of the previous night curling into a fetal position, and calling for his mother. (He was ninety years old.) This was memorable.

And the old Welsh coal miner in the bed next to mine (also about ninety), who was down to one half of one lung, and in terrible pain — but stoic, smiling, joking, “unkillable” — a member of God’s own working class.

Perhaps I should explain that my own case wasn’t terminal, at all. I had only a tube stuck in my chest, above a collapsed lung. (Say after me, “spontaneous pneumothorax.”) They’d stuck me, rather literally, in that terminal ward, because it had the right equipment, and there was a shortage of beds at Westminster Hospital. Or, seen from another angle, God had stuck me in there to watch old men die.

I was still an atheist; but a firm believer in “the Bible as Literature.” I had borrowed a King James Bible from a (very pretty, born-again) young nurse, only for something to read. I needed magnificent literature, I did not need a paperback, at that time, lying in that ward. I was near to panic, the darkness was encroaching, I was in physical torment myself, and felt the closing in of “the valley of the shadow of death.” Verily, I was beginning to understand what terror feels like.

Purely for distraction I reached (painfully) for the Good Book. It fell open at one of the young nurse’s bookmarks: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, …”

Though the earth be removed. Though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled. Though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.


This was a sign of the times.

Good one

Good on Fox, and especially Megyn Kelly, for provoking Donald Trump to stay away from a TV “debate.” It was an exquisite marketing move, for which I must also congratulate Roger Ailes, and Rupert Murdoch. Now suddenly the other half of America — the “liberal” half — is tuning in Fox News and liking it. I am rather enjoying this. It was time to unsettle Mr Trump, who is outwardly a populist thug, but inwardly a pansy. In his absence the exchange of crass personal insults dropped nearly to zero, and the intelligence level quadrupled. (That can’t be good for ratings, though.)

I adore Mrs Kelly, even though she once chopped me up on air, into wee tiny pieces. It was a scene I would rather not remember, which still comes back to mind: the biggest fool I ever made of myself on the idiot box. “They” had me on to “discuss” some Canadian journalist with a name like Malice, who’d done an especially obnoxious anti-American tirade for the Canadian shill network, CBC. How did I “feel” about it?

“Just great,” I replied. … Mrs Kelly’s eyes went suddenly narrow. …

“I think it is wonderful when we get to hear what our media types really think. Usually it is confined to off-camera comments. On camera, we get their totally fake ‘objective’ pose.”

She could remain silent no longer. She lit into me with a hundred thunderballs. How dare I defend this obnoxious anti-American twit?

“But Megyn, but Megyn, I’m on your side,” I mumbled, with little hope of being heard. Then I went home to read a hundred emails from patriotic Americans, condemning me to death.

Irony may not be her strongest suit, but Mrs Kelly knows how to rattle people, and that is the interviewer’s most important skill, at least when dealing with the powerful. Ideally, you get them to say, on the record, what they will not want to hear in the recording.

The complete demolition of Henry Kissinger, by the late adored Oriana Fallaci in 1972, stands as I think the high point in my living experience of journalism. She also destroyed Ayatollah Khomeini, Muammar Gaddafi, Haile Selassie, and Yasser Arafat, in plain public view. Indeed, she achieved these things long before her thermonuclear, one-woman assault on Islam, after 9/11. (She was a libertarian anarchist, and finally a “very Catholic atheist,” who met with Pope Benedict XVI and admired him.)

As gentle reader may already imagine, I do not think the purpose of journalism is to be “fair.” One is always in the tag ring with Good and Evil, yet one is not the referee. One’s job is to help Good get a clean knock-out. All the great journalists have understood this: that they do not report what is “fair” but what they believe, or better, know to be true — in its entirety. The task is to expose the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.

Will this have any effect on “history”? Almost certainly not. But that is not our business. History can take care of itself.

Now in the present circumstances, I wonder if Good is even in the ring. One is more or less up against Evil, solo, and so might as well invoke God. “Nothing to lose but your life,” as they say. And, “Nothing to gain but Heaven.”

The journalist’s task with Mr Trump, for instance, is not to tell lies to his benefit, or to his detriment. Lies seldom work for long, unless you have guns to enforce them. Rather it is to show him, for exactly what he is. This Mrs Kelly did for a moment in their televised encounter some months ago. The presidential candidate found her impossible to bully. He’d found all other journalists easy marks. Hooo, did he whimper, in vulgar emails afterwards; and last night, conspicuously, he could not return to face her (still owing an apology on air). He wasn’t man enough for that.

Rather, since crass insults are his game, let me add that he is America’s most blustering weenie.

Honi soit qui mal y pense

I notice that pretty much the whole class of Australian politicians will have to be hanged, drawn, &c, for conspiring against Her Majesty, to the end of declaring a Republic. I fear, however, that this won’t happen; that the treason will simply be performed. I am not “up” on the Antipodean situation, and have scanned only a few websites reporting the latest unpleasant news. The usual sleazy rhetoric is employed, to propose the overturning of their constitutional order. The nation must “come of age,” &c, which implies she has failed to do so as a Commonwealth since 1901, and only now may be ready for responsible government. The politicians have decided they must fix this. She must obtain the “independence” that will make her indistinguishable from every other sordid post-modern national amusement park.

The intention is plain, as in all third-world movements. The political class wants a local strongman, or failing that one of their own, to play the Queen in public ceremonies. As I know from our partly parallel Canadian history, pride and envy are their guides. The profane State wants an absolute monopoly of power and prestige, to appropriate both the profane and the sacred. A royal house, especially one not permanently resident and thus directly under their thumbs, is an affront to the politicians’ self importance, with its vestigial suggestion that anything could be above their station. To the faithless, Dieu et mon droit is beyond intellectual reach.

No, “the power of the people” must be absolute, and seen to be absolute, in the person of a politician. And the model of a Republic, designed for the government of small cities, is applied by the politicians to states on the scale of large historic empires, and inflated to accommodate their lusts.

As a Canadian I realize that Australian developments will only encourage the spoilt Trudeau child, and members of his proud and contemptible Party, to try the same stunt here. For them it is only a question of timing: of what they can get away with, and how soon. For decades they worked assiduously to strip monarchical symbols from our public life, and now they claim these are “out of date.” Being politicians, and thus very nearly the lowest of the low, they have sponsored instead a cheap and jingo nationalism to empower their class, even when the individual members inspire little but disgust in the voters.

The Australian constitution, as I understand it, was modelled on Westminster, plus Canadian federalism, and a few details borrowed from USA and Switzerland. One of these last was the public referendum. When last consulted in one, Australian voters defeated a republican proposal by a decisive margin (6 November 1999). But this, to a hungry wolf, is only a temporary setback. He looks for an alternative way to get at the flesh he so craves.

It does not follow that such a proposal will be defeated again. These days, with the pillars of our civilization cracked, “public opinion” can be changed very quickly. In 1999, for instance, the Canadian Parliament not only defeated a private member’s bill (from an irritating backbench homosexual) to introduce “same-sex marriage,” but shot it off with a resolution defining marriage in perpetuity as “the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others,” which passed by an overwhelming margin. The then-governing Liberals were at pains to show they wanted nothing to do with a measure that enjoyed hardly any public support. Those who doubted this (moi, par example) were accused of paranoia.

By 2003, the necessary jackboot was tied on: a provincial court ruled retroactively that “same-sex marriage” could not be denied; and in 2005, Parliament rubber-stamped on behalf of the whole country. By then, public opinion had come round. Anyone opposed could now face “hate laws,” freshly written into the Criminal Code alongside the last season’s “genocide” provisions.

There is no chest, no head, no heart, as empty as “public opinion.”

I daresay the Australians will fold the same way, in the face of relentless republican propaganda, and the systematic sabotage of their noble traditions. For while they may be a little less flexible than the average rubber-duck Canadians, it can’t be by much.

While it was, for the most part, only a conceit, the idea that the politician is “Her Majesty’s servant” was a subtle but continuous check on the politician’s vanity. The idea of waiting for Royal Assent — the remote possibility that it might not be granted — provided a modestly civilizing restraint on him. He was obliged at least to dress the part of a loyal domestic, and take his place in an ancient and honourable procession. Even in the decline of kingly power, monarchy remained an impediment to his Adamic barbarity. He must know his place. Remove that Throne — undermine the constitutional order that it upholds — and only the wolf remains.

The American Republic was established with a clear notion that it governed “One nation under God,” further limited by traditionally British, and legally defensible rights, belonging not to the state, but to the free citizen. Their constitution has been effectively overthrown, by the gradual inversion of the meaning of its terms, and the obviation of civil life beyond intrusive government regulation. The “democratic” American politicians, as all others in once free countries, are impeded by nothing as they invade every tiny corner of humane family as well as civic life, while erecting their incomprehensibly large, bureaucratic and autocratic Nanny State.

In our post-modern context, the idea that his Creator has claims above man, and therefore above every human tyranny, is taken for a nonsense. In the descent of practice from the French Revolution, Atheism is now the default position of every public authority. And monarchy becomes ridiculous for its implicit acknowledgement of the immortal Fact of our dependency.

For there is an implicitly priestly order, in which the Crown represents a people before God, and God before a people. Replace that, with some foetid “social contract,” and the possibility of “Crown in Parliament” slides also down the chute. Now it is only “The People,” with arrogated Capitals, who are everywhere in the great majority entirely ignorant of how government works, and who, in the absence of this competence, or any sound foundation, can be manipulated to “support” anything at all — including so many things known to all previous generations as morally abhorrent.

Poor Australia. There will be nothing left of her, after amendment by feckless politics and massive immigration. Her children will grow up as puddings.

On public statuary

A newspaper for a gentleman should be full broadsheet, which is to say, in the English-speaking realms, a page 24 inches deep by 18 inches wide — divided, ideally, into six 15-pica columns, in 8-point type with another point of leading to yield about ten thousand words per page (without headlines or illustrations), while allowing generous margins. This opens out to a yard wide, by two feet deep, which is the minimum a gentleman needs to cover his face and upper body, while snoozing in an armchair at his club.

John Richmond, “sketch-paddler” of fond memory, was the last to publish such a paper in Canada, to my less than certain knowledge. He did this from his residence in Claremont, Ontario. The journal was one sheet (four pages), and somewhat eccentric in character. It was launched slightly before my Idler magazine, and expired soon after launching. I was aware of at least three issues, but find only the inaugural number in my files.

It was entitled, The Bicameral Review, and announced itself as the “Official Organ of the Bicameral Society for the Stimulation of Brainwaves while You’re In, Above, or Near the Water.” An heraldic device with the title might be blazoned thus: “Twinned brainlobes, sable, affronté within a roundel, superscribed with the initials ‘B’ and ‘S’.”

Contents of the first number included a sixty-fifth anniversary commemoration of the Royal Visit of 1919; a half-page Crosshatch Puzzle with forty-five twinned clues; miscellaneous lesser contests and quizzes, in which the prize was invariably a copy of the same remaindered book; a “Plowboy” interview with Mr Significant; surgical advice to help skiers become more serious, high-minded, well-proportioned, keen; tips for rock-fishing; and street interviews with various persons on the breaking-news question, “What does the Provincial Bicentennial mean to You?”

Richmond’s elegant penmanship in captions and caricatures added dimensionally to the enchantment, and while one item was confessedly prurient (a miniature diagram of “the structure of a spermatozoon”), most were in good, or at least acceptable, taste (“Writer Brooke Salmon dressed for a border-crossing,” &c).

A “man of true genius and creative wallop,” as Richmond said of another, more than three decades ago. He was old enough when I last spied him, in white hair and beard; he disappeared from my vicinity without mentioning whether he had died. Only yesterday I discovered that he abandoned this planet in January, three years ago, having taken extended holidays from it in Mexico beforehand. I imagine him still sketching in the refreshing uplands of Purgatory, bounding about in his peculiar way, trailed by numerous small children.

“Dear John,” as one might begin a note to him, to leave at the counter of the Zanzibar, or wherever.

It struck me, after yesterday’s effusion, that in addition to artists who lived and died poor, but whose works now command millions of dollars, there are those who lived and died poor, and are utterly forgotten. In addition to the Unknown Soldier, whom I would never wish to overlook, we might want to subscribe for public monuments to the Unknown Poet, the Unknown Flautist, the Unknown Greengrocer, and so forth. Surely this city is in need of more statues, and it is a pity Richmond can’t be found to design them.

Meditation on a potato

My Chief Texas Correspondent forwards a rather fetching picture of a common tuber — a potato — taken against a black background with a high-end digital camera, by the society photographer, Kevin Abosch — an Irishman. He recently sold it to a Continental businessman, whose identity was undisclosed, for one million euros. (I should like to know where that businessman lives.)

Let me not be vulgar. I will have no fun at the expense of the Irish, or of the rich. This is not a tabloid, like some other websites I could name. Without prejudice I observe that it is an attractive potato, presented in fine detail, unwashed and unshaven. A “nude,” I was thinking, while looking it over. Mr Abosch must have some expertise, for I notice his title is “Potato #345,” which suggests he is an old hand at photographing spuds.

Should memory serve (I don’t like Google-searching) $170,405,000 was paid for the Modigliani nude that sold at Christie’s in November; and something more than that for a Picasso, earlier last year. By this standard the Abosch is a dollar-store item. An auction house like Christie’s can turn over a thousand million dollars in a week; even before the real estate transactions.

Not only in tabloids, scandal sells. My guess is that Modigliani’s Nu Couché took a premium because it got in the history books, a century ago. It offended a lot of old ladies, at the time. And one may see why it would. Amedeo Modigliani himself lived and died very poor, but somehow acquired along his way the most alluring, even daunting mistresses; such as my admired poetess, the young Anna Akhmatova — his sketches of whom, I am sorry to say, still fetch only in the low millions. (I’m fairly sure Nu Couché is not of her.)

He had a way of life, tubercular and alcoholic, that is the joy of every adolescent mamma’s boy, and helps account for his success with models. He had a simplified and repetitive style, that is the joy of forgers.

One goes to the Prado in Madrid to see the really high-class mistresses. One thinks immediately of Goya’s La Maja Desnuda, painted more than a century before the oldest of Modigliani’s. It bothered the old ladies of that age, so much, that it spent some time in the hands of the Inquisition. Today, there is something about the “full effrontery” of the past, that gets a rise from a certain class of art collector. They will bid a price up and up; although in Goya’s case I must say his companion painting of the Duchess of Alba, fully clothed in the same reclining pose, is the more shocking. (Some art historians say it depicts another of Goya’s mistresses; but I tell you it was the Duchess of Alba.) I think it’s the subtly bolder look in the eyes, of La Maja Vestida. She seems more shy with her clothes off.

But getting back to our potato, I can detect no “attitude” at all. I have indeed been unable to discern much emotion, in any of the potatoes I have handled over the years. One gets more feedback from a live lobster; from potatoes, only the Sartrean ennui. But I would not wish to depreciate this one, the price of whose portrait is itself enlivening. Or one might, given the black sheet background, mistake it for the latest moon of Pluto, in which case the high-resolution detail increases the excitement.

Let me be plain: it is a handsome potato. But I am one of the Scottish genetic persuasion, and can find its like on a local barrow for less than one (1) inflated Canadian dollar. And as to the fine resolution, I have magnifying glasses in the High Doganate up here. Rather, for a million or up, I would expect Van Gogh’s “Potato-Eaters,” or at least a potato by Joan Miró.

We (my CTC and I) were discussing the question of “idea” behind a work of art. “Function follows form,” I declared, in defiance of the moderns; but in agreement with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and McLuhan. I was stumped, however, on the question of “found art.” I suppose all photography to be “found art,” at best.

The most successful photographer I have met — a Welshman practising in the Far East, who still owes me some rent, incidentally — told me, many years ago: “Painters are born, sculptors are born, composers are born, poets are born. Photography is a hobby.”

I will allow this insight was worth something, but still find him a little in arrears. Though perhaps he made up the difference with other apperceptions, rendered before he flit our shared, over-priced flat — such as how to size up a portrait client. Vanity, he told me, has a certain cash value, and the trick is to estimate well. Too high, or too low, and you have lost the sale.

Though I have liked some potatoes more than others, I can’t reasonably say even one of them was vain. It is the apparent indifference of the potato, to human evaluation, that now has my attention; together with its capacity to sprout in the dark (thus actually diminishing its culinary value). The sensuous young nude, as it were, earth-apple of one’s eye, becomes old and wrinkled.

Not even Durer could impute a motive to any vegetable within his earthy still-lifes. Though here it must be said he never had the chance, with a potato, since these tubers did not penetrate to Nuremberg from the New World — via the Canaries and Antwerp, I think — until after his decease. (Basque fishermen first brought them to western Ireland, I believe, in the 1540s; only a couple of decades after some Spaniard had spotted one in the Quito market.)

Durer’s contemporary and pen-pal Leonardo might also have done immortal justice to this tuber, on first sight, if he had ever seen one. To this day it offers a certain je ne sais quoi to the ambitious botanical illustrator. But what I long for is a potato by Bellini.

The yachtsman

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a foundation of financial insecurity. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea. ‘Cruising’ it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change.”

This is one of those quotes one copies into one’s commonplace book, forgetting to note where one found it. Journalists have been hanged for less. A quick Internet search suggests it was probably by Sterling Walter Hayden. It was the sort of thing that appealed to me when young.

Now that I am old it appeals to me more.

Consider likewise the Spanish folksinger María Salgado, on whom I have a big fat crush — her song, Sólo por miedo (“Only for fear”):

Qué bonito es el miedo cuando es sincero,
Qué brillante el futuro cuando es oscuro,
Qué exquisito el delito cuando lo grito,
Cuando lo grito. …

Una vida más tarde comprenderemos
Que la vida perdimos,
Sólo por miedo. …

I dare not translate this, for too many of my readers know Spanish. And besides, this lady sings with a clarity so distilled, that anyone can understand. And moreover, it is too good a song (an Argentine vals, I am told), woven from beautifully precise contradictions. Translated, it can only be ruined. And the music makes it better: the contralto tone of resignation, for instance, when the words speak of shrieking.

Still I would have you consider, gentle reader:

How pretty is fear when it is sincere; how bright the future when it is in darkness; how exquisite the crime when they scream, when they scream! … Only a lifetime later to understand, that life is lost from fear, only. …

(There are a few more stanzas.)

Yes, I should think, that would make it a love song. But for whom, one might plausibly ask? And plausibly answer, for some long-lost love, never met, and never to be forgotten. And a good love song is erotic, and spiritual, so that it echoes in some way, The Song of Songs.

We do not have the guts to live — to risk, and to adventure. That is why, today, even those who get married, never get married; even those who go to church, never go to church; even those who travel, never leave home. We feast without feasting, fast but never fast. And then in the end we fear, for nothing — for all that never happened, that we have lost.

Yesterday we entered Septuagesima, the turning point in voyaging from Christmas to Easter. (Though till Candlemas, Christmas remains alight.) From life to death, from port to port. And on this day of Saint Paul’s going forth, suddenly in the garments of a Christian, we may see that all this life is an adventure — from the setting out, to the coming in; through the transcendent joyful agony of “real life.” Or we look on graves and remember, the Love that was not spoken, nor died for even once.

Snow in New York

There could be no mercy, were there nothing to forgive. This is why Confession precedes Absolution. I’m sure the pope knows this — for he has said as much in his new book, The Name of God is Mercy, a conversation with the liberal Vaticanista, Andrea Tornielli. And it shouldn’t be necessary to point it out, to anyone who has been exposed to Catholic teaching, and/or logic. But it is lost on some.

Plenty of sound Catholic teaching to be found, between the lines of this new book. I have not read it through, but in what I perused, I found nothing to disagree with strongly. Questions of emphasis arise, but these will always do in a religion that cannot be reduced to a single tweet, or curt either/or, though it has inspired thousands of millions of them. You see, God is simpler than a tweet, but also infinitely larger.

People read tweets and do not read books: this is a problem I am perhaps not the first to call to gentle reader’s attention. Moreover, I cannot think of a tweet that will make them change their ways. I have just, for instance, read a review of the pope’s new book in a “nice” liberal organ, that could be reduced to, “the pope is wagging his finger at people who wag their fingers,” and thinks this all for the best. The writer seems blissfully unaware that she spends the whole review wagging her finger — albeit in harmony with the pope’s finger. I think they are wagging at people like me, and as it were, goading us to wag right back. Then we can be got for wagging our fingers at the pope.

John Podhoretz, incidentally not a Catholic, is a masterful tweeter. I spent nearly half an hour, yesterday morning — “time I will never have back,” as they say — reading nearly a hundred of his tweets, as they were being generated, sometimes a little faster than I could read them. He had put his neck out, as he loves to do, criticizing the Mayor, for telling the wusses of New York to stay in from the snow. Podhoretz is very tired of these Nanny State pronouncements, to people of small if rapid brain. (So am I.) In the time, he very wittily deflected dozens upon dozens of insults directed at him. I read them because they were so amusing; but regret that such a clever man is wasting his time on fools. (For he can also write very witty essays.)

Perhaps we might call it “the culture of New York.” Or even more grandly, “the culture of cities,” which by their nature reward quick thinking, but tend to neglect the profound. Indeed, at a dinner, recently, my hostess expressed her shock at the decision of a younger couple, also at table, to move out of the inner city entirely, to a rather distant small town, in the hope of raising their children properly.

“But they will grow up as dolts!” she expostulated.

Then apologized, saying, that while she granted rural people the right to life (she is very conservative by city standards), they are slow and, you know, rather drooling. You should see how they drive in the city, she added. I dragged my own knuckles into the debate, in defence of slowness and drool.

And, I insisted, consecutive reasoning. I am a great fan of the linear, and of thinking “inside the box” of custom. Also, I advocate lip-reading to my students, to enjoy the aesthetic dimension of those works intended as “literature.” Country people would know what I mean.

Snow in Washington

Forty-three years now, the marchers have gone in to the middle of Washington, DC, to mark the anniversaries of Roe v. Wade. It is the world’s largest annual pro-life demonstration. Marchers in other countries commemorate different dates; in Canada for instance, we fill up the space in front of Parliament in May, while the media take their holiday. In our case, the full slaughter began forty-seven years ago; in Britain, forty-nine. On the Continent, the case is more complicated, for to this day there remain some restrictions on the mother’s “right” to have her baby killed. But by and large it became, almost everywhere through the ’seventies, open season on the wee bairns. (Little countries like Ireland only going to Hell now.)

They have the perfect weather for the celebration of life, this year and this day, in Washington. According to my information, all government offices are closed. The downtown looks abandoned, and the snows had started along with the marchers: the weathermen predicting two-and-a-half feet. In such circumstances, Christ is taking attendance personally.

A reader provides this link (here) on what it’s all about. It is to a most memorable pro-life speech, delivered by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus in his own last year. I read it then (2008) with distracted approval; I see that it has grown on me since.

For he is right: the issue does not go back only half a century. It goes back to Adam, via Cain and Abel, and can be shown to do so. And the enemy have not been so many named judges on a law bench, for their name is Legion.

At times, I have myself thought all marches pointless, and all large congregations ineffectual — except alas those who gather to empower a Trump, or an Obama; a Mussolini, or a Hitler; or in every European capital a century ago, to demand entry into the Great War.

What can be the meaning of a “March for Life”? It will not change anything. The eugenic liberals, the parenthood planners, who exulted in the U.S. Supreme Court decision, will go to any length to defend it — so long as only babies are paying for their sins. Only if the danger were instead to themselves, would they cut and run.

By now, it is well over sixty million slain, in the USA and Canada (less than one in a hundred of those after rape or incest, or with the mother’s life in danger); and well over another thousand million around the world (thanks e.g. to western-financed population control programmes, chiefly through the United Nations). And now we move into the era of euthanasia, for the old, the depressed, the sick, and abandoned, who weigh upon our own “quality of life” by their demands on our medical and welfare budgets. I mention this only to contradict the Pollyannas who say, “it can’t get any worse.”

Whatever comes, we must bear witness. And this, not only to the evil that is done, but also to the joy that cannot be defeated. For the Life, conceived for each, in the Love of our Creator, will bear us forward through all Satan’s wiles; and in this moment it is trudging through the snow; and Christ will collect His sheep to Him.

On political lowness

Diplomacy is war by more devious means. Politics are the continuation of civil wars, ditto. The former are uglier, in spirit, and more so, the better the opponents understand each other. Von Clausewitz didn’t know the half of it.

Well, perhaps once again I have aimed under the top, but shot just over. I am reacting in horror to present electoral campaigns, in the USA, and in most other places. I mentioned before, I think, Donald Trump, whom I described as “nauseating.” But I hope I didn’t leave the impression I’d never vote for him. A more nauseating candidate might emerge.

Together with most of my contemporaries, I like to slight politicians. But I am conscientious, in my opposition to democracy, and try to depreciate all round. The “pols” become, with each passing election, more crass. They no longer pretend to be gentlemen or ladies, who would never descend to ad hominem attacks. Some now go so far, in debates, as refusing to laugh at each other’s jokes. Or omitting any line of self-deprecation. Lying, I can understand, for that is after all their trade. But these days, they lie without artifice or charm.

They can be blamed for so many bad things; but the people who vote for them can be blamed for worse. We, in the mass, and also individually, have played the larger part in reducing public life to a crude mud tussle. It must of course be acknowledged there were mudfights before, in the more Jacksonian reaches of the past. And that they tended to be witless. But those were pioneer days, on the frontier.

Among my reasons to prefer the despicable, and often murderous life of ancient royal courts, to the despicable conventions of democracy, is the class thing. Courtiers were better dressed and spoken. They were never reduced to shouting over crowds. The monarch was likely to have been raised with some culture. Even a bloody monster, like Bad Queen Bess, had elegant handwriting. She could explain herself in Latin verse, and dance a galliard or lavolta. Many of her executions were performed in the “silk rope” style, leaving a little dignity for both victim and observers.

I frankly do not think Hillary Clinton could do a quadrille. (Though a lady once told me her husband can waltz.)

Granted, we must live under the direction of malicious clowns, I still want to see an effort at concealment. Are they so poor they cannot afford elocutionists, or drawing masters? Could not one give an account of himself with rapier under the code duello? In moments I wonder if any (since Reagan) have equestrian skills. Must they all be so vulgar?

Comfort food

As I write, the Dow is 500 down and plunging; the Footsie (London), likewise crashed; and so, everywhere else there is a stock market; while at Davos in Switzerland the world’s leading politicians and movie stars sound pompously glum. All this makes me happy.

The race is on, into government bonds, as the IMF begins to realize that we are in a worse position than 2007, facing worse than in 2008. The Chinese Communists turned out not to be magicians. More, the world’s financial assets are all tied up in computer algorithms, better than red tape; they all come down together. The central banks have run right out of “quantitative easing.” And now a tiny inevitable rise in interest rates prepares to tip everything off the table. Oil is become almost worthless; and did I mention the competitive currency devaluations?

The castle in air is descending, oh la! … Watch out below! …

Of course I saw this coming; everybody did. That’s why I called my (inner) broker and told him to shift all my money into second-hand books. They’ll be a real treasure when the Internet collapses. I have half-a-dozen stacked by my bedside already. …

But darn, Wall Street did a correction, from the time I last checked. It seems to have restored about half of its losses. There is still a danger “market forces” will recover. We might, by some demonic miracle, creep back to where we were. But also a good chance not. For the precipice remains before us; and surely this is the year for the great dive.

In the memorable words of Flannery O’Connor: “Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy!”


The other topical point I wanted to make today, is on comfort food. Consider your options here, gentle reader, in the sweets portfolio: a rippled chocolate bombe; a mousse; crêpes suzette; upside-down puddings; butterscotch apple charlotte; a pavlova; a torte; perhaps a roulade; a Battenberg cake, or Bakewell tart; indeed, anything under a layer of marchpane.

Or before we come to sweet, to meat: and that with plenty of potatoes. Consider, my dear market investor: Pot-roast brisket in beer! Roast pork with crisp, and rosemary! Sirloin with red onions in a dark port gravy! Steak pies! Roast lamb with mint sauce, or in apricots! Lamb shanks! Venison and mushrooms! Glorious rich stews! Braised partridge! Coq au vin!

The truth is I am flipping the pages to the photographs in a cookbook I picked up in the laundry room downstairs. It is morally disapproving of itself. The captions speak of sin, guilt, and indulgence. They warn us of the calorie counts. They flinch at the mention of fats; beautiful fats. Yet there is nothing wrong with any of these fine meals. What a weight of self-reproach, that could have been presented in the Confessional, and shriven. For in addition to the fake ones, we do have real sins.

So recently was this laundry-book published that it mentions not “your mother,” but “your grandmother,” as the maker of such delights. (Your mom probably had a boring, pulverizing dayjob, just like you, young miss — thanks to the triumph of feminism.) Soon it might have to be your great-grandmother, who brought such magnificent fare before the sparkling eyes of her big family, famished from real work, outdoors. And great-grandpa saying grace from the other end of the table; and all joining in a hearty Amen!

Poor people, by any modern statistical standard. Home-owners, back when land was cheap. Or, people who actually built their own houses; and grew vegetables in their sidelot; and even before the delivery of city milk in bottles, got it from their own cow.

Decades have passed, and those people have gone under; but there they all once were. I recall the last glint of that rural and small-town way of life — subsumed in the words “comfort food” today.

I can see it when I close my eyes: the picture of my own beaming grandmother, as if in halo, surrounded by all she loved; and with this grand, Protestant turkey on her tray. Lost world.


Compare: all those monied folk in flash restaurants today, with their troubles, surreptitiously consulting their hand-helds to watch their stockholdings slide, their savings tank, their retirement schemes evaporating, minute by minute. As dull, one would think, as watching paint dry. And all of it abstract; just numbers. And none of it worse than a house on fire.

Still, for some strange reason, they fret about their diet plans, as the “servers” bring them miniature food fragments on giant, vacant plates.

No, no, forlorn besuited people! Forget your depression in your joy! Do not jump off your balcony like that!

It is a day to order every course doubled. Enjoy it before your cards are all called in. Order the best wine. Order another bottle. It is a day to propose marriage; to throw a child in the air, and catch him in your arms. To look upon all the beauty of the world; to walk out under the heavens.

And yes, the future may be more difficult than the past; and if we wish, vastly more rewarding. For the angels have spoken, and we don’t have to be robots any more.

Eat, drink, and rejoice!

Nasty surprises

As gentle reader will know, I am very timid, and could never wish to be the first to criticize a pope. Not only do I hesitate, to see who will go first (the Rorate Caeli website, here, is always a good bet), but also because I want to be sure he merits the criticism. I have some books up here in the High Doganate, to look things up; too, there are websites like The Denzinger-Bergoglio (here), wherein some better heads than mine go to the trouble of looking things up for me. They juxtapose the great written sources for our Christian doctrine, starting with the Bible, and continuing through the Fathers and Doctors, the great Councils and so forth — with the recent words of our current Bishop of Rome. Generally without comment. Verily, comment is seldom needed. And there are other places to go, of which I especially recommend The Catechism of the Catholic Church (here).

But we shouldn’t, to my mind, be hoping to criticize. And where the issue is doubtful, we should let it pass. Father Kevin Cusick, the old navy chaplain, provides a more gruff and charitably broad approach. As he writes in his Twitter account: “Join me in praying that our Holy Father will consider what he says and does in light of its effect on the universal Church before acting.”

This approach is not sufficient, however, when we find the pope teaching active and dangerous, outright heresy. For then, as Catholics, we have a solemn duty to correct him. This was the case after his homily yesterday (see here), which has already been flagged in many places. Father Hunwicke perhaps reacted most concisely this morning (here), by reminding us that popes do not make Catholic doctrine. They teach it, and are as subject to it as any of us who claim to be Catholic Christian. He quotes these plain, authoritative words from Vatican I:

“The Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter so that, by His revelation, they might reveal new teaching, but so that, by His assistance, they might devoutly guard and faithfully set forth the revelation handed down through the Apostles, or in other words, the Deposit of the Faith.”

Rather than accept my paraphrase of Pope Francis’s homily, I would have gentle reader consult the official report first. In my view, the homily offered eccentric interpretations (or wilful misreadings) of several Gospel and Old Testament passages, and repeated his frequent assertion that the Holy Spirit likes to “surprise” us with His latest revelations. It concludes with a throwaway line, which allows that some fundamental things don’t change, without telling us what these might be. It leaves the faithful Catholic totally at sea about what his Church might now be teaching, and grievously insulted for having been faithful, under the world’s duress. It flatters that Catholic’s most contemptuous and vindictive enemies.

Now, in a Catholic view, the Holy Spirit does not surprise us, but conveys that same old Deposit, to each new unregenerate generation, through the ministry of priests. The conceit that we were somehow born knowing it, or have already mastered it by attending Mass occasionally, and therefore need check in only for what’s new, is itself worth pointing to with great alarm. The catastrophic failure of our Church, from the 1960s, to teach the most elementary catechism to her children, should be known to those with half a brain or more. The idea that Catholics at large are stuck in slavish adherence to “the old ways,” and therefore need a bit of tickling to wake up, is a pose so false as to be ludicrous.

I cannot understand this. Why, when a considerable portion of Catholic folk don’t know A, B, or C, does the pope preach what might come after Z? Especially when he has been told, again and again, that such reckless chatter is splitting his Church into rival camps, and causing terrible destruction all the way down to ground level in the parishes? What is he hoping to achieve?

The Deposit of the Faith became complete upon delivery by Our Lord Jesus Christ who, unlike Allah in the Koran, did not correct Himself or change His mind from one surah to another. The intellectual challenge for us is to understand what was, is, and will be there, every time we turn to it. We may see it from new angles as time passes by — that is one of the uses of Time for us — and thereby, potentially, see it more fully. But only if we can remember what we saw before. We aren’t going to find anything new, except to us. Most decidedly, the orthodox was there before, and can be orthodox only if it can be shown to have been there.

The Church in each generation is inhabited by men, and we should know by now all about men, and their need for salvation. Starting from Adam, we have been somewhat wayward, and as the Church teaches, this is not a good thing. Obedience to God would be categorically better. But men we have, for bishops in this world, and I don’t mean the pope only. One might say these are dismal days, when it comes to episcopal waywardness, though in fairness we must remember that we have had dismal days before. I tend to think that tyranny is now among the issues extending, from the top, down.

Among bishops, bound in discipline to the pope’s managerial instructions, we have always had the risk of the courtier, or “company man.” This guarantees an easy life, even a life of luxury within the company, and for at least as long as that pope reigns, there is the dangle of promotion. Even among those with their private sceptical opinions, it is easiest to salute, then pass the order down; especially when what slides down the pipe is the same smug liberal sludge that comes from most other directions. The argument, “I was only following orders,” can then be tried if circumstances change, and the bishop in question must quickly adapt to pleasing a new managerial regime, with its revised (or the old restored) “agenda.”

But the Church is not a royal court, or a multinational company, and our “big boss” is not the pope. He is himself only a line manager for our immortal Saviour, Christ the King — His “rep” on Earth for a certain short period. A wise bishop will remember this, in all moments: that he, also, answers finally to Christ. Best for bishops not to be put in positions of conflict between head and heart, as they were not by such fine popes as Saint John Paul II and beloved Benedict XVI. The worst is when their own ranks begin to fill with “yes men” for some New Age, revolutionary agenda. The extremely low quality of this pope’s appointments is compounding and extending the mess, and this gnostic heresy that, “the Holy Spirit speaks through the pope,” is spreading. It is totally wrong. The pope is not a ventriloquist’s dummy.

It is a notion not merely unCatholic, but anti-Catholic. It ignores the distinction between Holy Church and Holy Rollers. It undermines the whole fabric, and leaves the sheep, whom the Church was charged to guard, utterly confused about who are their Shepherds. Those who echo Christ? Or possible wolves who arrive with some “surprising” new marching orders?

Interesting if true

My title is from some long-forgotten world of journalistic near-integrity. That is, from a time I am old enough to remember the end of, when a “normal” hack was an almost anonymous, flat-foot fellow, who went about gathering “news” from those most likely to provide it, and used his salty judgement about who was telling how much of the truth. While he used the electric telephone, the telex wires and other modern innovations, he looked most of his sources in the eye (whether in Orangeville, Ont., or Washington, DC). This kept him out and about all day. As he had a “beat,” which he held for years, decades, or his whole adult life, he would more or less know his way around it. Returned to his corner of the big office, where he had no privacy and got no unearned respect (even from the copy boys or the sweepers), he further used his judgement to determine what the requirements of a “family newspaper” were, with respect to basic decency. None of his kind would have university degrees; especially not the editor-in-chief. They smoked and drank a lot. But as they had few, if any woman colleagues, and went boozing only with “the boys,” they didn’t have affairs: staggering home to a lonely room, or to a little house with a wife and disorderly children. There were exceptions, but this was “normal.”

The current sort, an increasingly endangered species, because there is no use for them at all, sit hunched over a computer all day, checking various websites for “leads,” and “messaging” with total strangers — including the people they purport to know. They have by-lines, but no beats, and they work in self-decorated cubicles, which they leave only to fetch coffee. The management give them nothing but “respect,” publicly. All have degrees, mostly in “journalism,” but sometimes in sociology or “gender studies” or “international relations.” They are non-smokers, and close to teetotal, and as they say in Alberta, “dumb as a sack of hammers.” This goes also for the women; and to understand the office, one must know who is sleeping with whom.

And then of course we have our “citizen journalists” — people like me — but I’d rather not go there.

It is hard to navigate between the Scylla of naiveté, and the Charybdis of cynicism, in times like these. I refer, for instance, to a “news” story, that was prominent this morning, suggesting major tennis tournaments are fixed. Some of the biggest names, it is alleged, take bribes to lose important matches. I have no idea whether to believe it. I know nothing about tennis anyway.

And yet the story was, to my mind, “interesting if true.” This is an ancient journalistic phrase, warning the reporter to err on the side of scepticism. But in order to follow it, one would have to know, from the start, what is likely. One would need to be deeply embedded in that beat, and to have looked often in the eyes of each of the accused. As well, to have all one’s facts lined up, like toy soldiers. And then write each word, thinking, “Will I have to eat every one?”

This is not only because there are people who could be falsely and maliciously accused. For as in the soccer scandal that preceded it, or Olympic drug scandals, passim, one is confronted with a worldview question. If, Heaven forfend, it is possible to fix international sports tournaments, over long periods, while “the whole world is watching,” what does this say about other popular events, perhaps beyond sport? (Elections come to mind.) Is it possible, for instance, that everything now in the news has been fixed in some way? In which case, as a lawyer might comment, “madness is indicated.”

I don’t actually believe very much is fixed, or in its nature, fixable. While I have no opinion on tennis scandals, my understanding of the world is that conspiracies are much harder to arrange, and sustain, than in the jaded popular imagination; that tyranny requires some threat of brute force; that the world is full of lies, but few of them well-organized. Moreover, I think that lies appeal only to those who want to believe them; and are otherwise conceded only by those who do not know any better, or want a quiet life.

This view is quasi-theological. God will put men in tough positions, but not in those where they cannot guess at the truth, or what is reasonable. He wouldn’t make it that easy for the Devil. He (God) doesn’t do X-Files. He is consistent, and consistently allows the contradictions within every attempted conspiracy to break it down. Perhaps this is what is happening within tennis; or perhaps the reporting is cynical and jaded. The truth will eventually find a way out, here or hereafter; but usually quite soon. “Interesting if true” becomes interesting if false: for not only tennis stars are sinners.

Somewhere there is the draught of an essay on, “The Uses and Abuses of Paranoia,” meant for “P” in an alphabet book I was once compiling on the uses and abuses of this and that. My point, then and now, is that sanity requires an understanding that all human evils are in their nature passing; that each corresponds to a potential good; and is limited by its circumstances. Moreover, I believe that sanity requires a certain worldly detachment, and thus absolutely, faith in a Loving God; that this isn’t “an option” but the beginning of comprehension, or “wisdom” in the old-fashioned sense.

For at the back of things, benevolence shines; and though malevolence is no illusion, it is passing cloud.

Pray for Taiwan

Miss Tsai Ing-wen, the president-elect of Taiwan, after winning about three-fifths of the vote in an election this week, has nothing resembling the conventional political charisma, and poses as a quiet old maid. But she doesn’t need it because she has two cats, Think-Think and Ah-Tsai, who are both charismatic. They were able to corner the youth vote, or so I gather from my only remaining correspondent in Taipei.

I have not myself been on that island for about fifteen years. My last visit, written up in a dead-tree medium, was a shock to me, because my penultimate visit had been another twenty years before. I was bewildered by the transformation over less than one generation, and was delivered by airport bus to the centre of a city I could not recognize: at first, not one building. Taipei had been hit by some wealth tsunami, and even so sleepy an east-coast town as Hualien — still described as “pristine” in the travel guides — was hopping with such stuff as “nightlife.”

Those cat-loving youth were everywhere in abundance, and the serene tyranny of the Kuomintang years had been unambiguously disturbed. Chen Shui-ban, master of the vote split, had just become the first president of Taiwan (or “Republic of China” as the KMT called it) who was not KMT. This on a nationalist platform against the imperial intentions of Beijing. A subtle mixture of hope and terror had settled over the political landscape. A lot of blood under the bridge, since then. (Taiwan has marvellous corruption scandals.)

“Democratic” and “progressive” are not my two favourite words, but this is what Chen’s party was called, and Miss Tsai now runs it. The KMT came back to make its characteristic mess and now, just like in a democracy, the DDP are back to make theirs. Miss Tsai explains her own rise to the presidency as the unexpected consequence of “an accidental life.”

Women who run countries come almost invariably from dynastic political families, who do not currently have a male heir, and are daughter or wife to some previous national ruler. Mrs Thatcher of the United Kingdom was a rare exception, and Miss Tsai studied for lawyer in Thatcherite England, rather admiring the way that lady got things done.

But the limit of her own ambition at that time was to become the lawyer her father needed, thanks to his rise back home from garage mechanic to property developer. She was zero on Taiwan’s political scene until the mid-1990s, when it turned out one area of her expertise was needed by a national agency trying to construct the precise legal argument to show that Taiwan had not been ruled from Beijing for centuries; and before that never except in the most whimsical and non-material way, from the belief that every other known country on the planet was a tributary state of the Middle Kingdom.

For some strange reason, committee after committee began to defer to Miss Tsai’s judgement; she was needed by President Chen, in turn, and the rest is now history. I am persuaded from what I have read that she is one of those weird cases of a person with great natural ability, actually rising to the top. I think of her as of a type with another Chinese lady to whom, due to a linguistic misunderstanding, I once found myself engaged: the dutiful daughter of a minor vegetable-oil empire in South-east Asia. Calm, diplomatic, ridiculously well-informed, kind and charitable to all family retainers, respectful to all elders, honourable in all situations, and with her eye constantly on the ball. Not anything like an Evita.

Miss Tsai has walked into one of the hardest jobs on Earth. It is to preserve the independence of Taiwan, against a politburo in Red China that has been determined to swallow the island next, ever since they ate Hong Kong. Miss Tsai has steel nerves, by reputation. Her style will be to avoid contention; to distract from the big with small details; and pray the Seventh Fleet of the United States Navy sticks around.

All the subsequent politics of Taiwan, to my understanding, were shaped by facts circa 1947, when the beaten KMT army came ashore in flight from Chairman Mao. Along with Israel, and formerly South Africa, she has been an uncool “pariah state”; my favourite after Israel. How to survive in a world where all the big states, including your allies, find you inconvenient? In which you need some friend with a very big stick, but long otherwise to be left alone?

The perfect woman for the job, I should think, and her people have come to embrace her as such. (Her predecessor was rather giving the shop away.) She is Hakka, not Mandarin; has even the requisite tiny sampling of indigenous mountain blood; and seems to personate what a Taiwanese wants to be: Chinese insofar as he is Chinese, but an Islander first. And with a tenaciously independent spirit, founded on family in the broadest sense, to include ancestors — a stereotype the monster Mao Tse-tung spent decades trying to snuff out on the Mainland, and his successors pursue by more bureaucratic, slightly less psychopathic methods.

They, for their part, have several thousand ground-to-ground missiles aimed at Taiwan from just across the Strait, and their own irrepressible urges.