Essays in Idleness


Swimwear issue

It is well that I am not the editor of Sports Illustrated; for were I so, I might commission a special burqini swimwear issue, just to provoke … everybody. All my lithe supermodels would be wearing burqini and veilkini variants, some with Marianne liberty caps and so forth. In the shoots, I would have them all posed on beaches surrounded by French policemen in their various uniforms, striking extravagant dance poses. There’d be a dwarf traffic cop in the traditional Paris “aubergine” raincoat, who’d turn up in set after set, blowing on a whistle. Perhaps one model in a wetsuit, with oxygen tanks, made to resemble a suicide vest; and other subtle topical allusions. In the background there’d be men and women in Edwardian beach attire, of extreme modesty, expressing shock. An old bathing machine would be lying on its side, with a sea turtle crawling out, mounted by an avatar of Vishnu, to extend the multicultural range.

Of course, I wouldn’t last long at “SI” — the only question, whether I’d be fired or assassinated first. But in the interim I might have the pleasure of being denounced by world leaders, and getting the company account banned by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, &c. With luck, an outrageously goading defence, and the help of Drudge and Breitbart, I might be able to stretch my fifteen minutes of infamy to twenty or twenty-five.

The intention would be to provoke laughter, at levels of absurdity now many layers deep. But we stepped beyond parody and satire, when four cops by the Promenade des Anglais in Nice were photographed ordering a Muslim woman to strip down, out of respect for “good morals and secularism” — while the nearly-naked on the beach around brayed at the woman, and her little daughter wept. Mayors have banned burqinis along the Riviera and around Corsica this summer. Most of these mayors are socialists. The costume itself was designed in Australia. It was first banned on beaches in Morocco.

Layers and layers, I say.

Yes, it is bad form to provoke people. I have this on the authority of Il Galateo, greatest of Italian renaissance courtesy manuals; better even than the short treatise on Manners presented to my paternal grandmother by Canadian immigration authorities in anno 1913. She had arrived at Quebec from Devonshire, with a French surname, and so must have been suspected of harbouring barbarous traits; our officials were more pro-active in those days. By the ’twenties, grandma was wearing a swimsuit that exposed not only her ankles but the calves, almost to the knees. Like any girl raised by (Anglican) nuns, she could be a little wild, once untended. But with marriage she settled nicely, and from what I can make of the family pictures, was never seen in a swimsuit again.

If provocation by ostentatious Muslim dress is the issue, I have seen much better in the Robarts Library. Perhaps I should report it, and demand that our local constabulary send in the clowns.

The common man

The usual way to remove inferior races from public spaces is to price them out. Municipal and regional governments are the guiding hand, through their planning departments. The “gentrification” process is done overtly through tight by-laws, licencing, and commercial regulation, all arranged on the Clintonian principle of “pay to play.” This makes the respectable zones too expensive for the lesser breeds, and assists in the development of their underclass-consciousness.

On the other side, more subtly at first, it is done by such as public housing projects, which remove the poor to a greater distance from respectable neighbourhoods, and confine them in camps, where their criminality and poor table manners can be offensive only to themselves. They become, by increments, wards of the state — and may be easily manipulated to provide voting blocks for the “progressive” parties, on whom they now depend for their rent, food stamps, and modest cash doles.

Compulsory attendance in state schools seals the bargain, by which the young of the underclass species are indoctrinated and trained to know their place in the social and political order. They can see that they are victims of “discrimination”; their resentments can be shaped in the interest of the governing liberal elites, and directed instead at people who have no idea what they are yammering and rioting about.

Who do not see that the poor have been “unpersoned.” And that, having little to lose, they are now playing the unpersonable part.

The superior races principally benefit from this system of apartheid, in which the unwashed are kept out of view, except through the selective camera angles of the media voyeurs. Without this isolation, the liberals’ smugness would be hard to maintain, and their commitment to various hygienic and environmental causes would suffer. They, for their part, are taught in their much better appointed government schools that the welfare-state redistribution of income exists to promote “equality”; when in fact it exists to promote the division of society into manageable cells, walled both visibly and invisibly to prevent the respective inmates from mixing and meeting. Now, even if they see, they cannot smell each other.


Years ago (about seventeen of them), when I was embedded as a journalist in Washington, DC (for the Clinton impeachment stake-out), I was curious to observe the psychology of “white liberals” in their most native home town. Having contacts in Georgetown, and access by journalistic credentials to the upscale, I could gawp at close range; yet I also wished to maintain some aloofness. (A journalist, to my eccentric mind, should neither fear nor favour the elect.)

I have always preferred to stay in fairly cheap, “local” hotels, and insisted upon it in this case, notwithstanding my media bosses kept assuring me that I need not be such a “cheap date.” (Newspapers still had money then.) The hotel I chose was the Harrington. For many months it was my base. I prefer such places because they are full of what I shall call, obnoxiously, “real people” — guests paying their own bills, as opposed to those on government or corporate expense accounts, accustomed to various luxuries, in social isolation.

Staying there put me in touch, instead, with the lower middle classes, constantly arriving from the “flyover” country. These were the ultimate Washington outsiders: mostly young, worker-bee types from states like Missouri, Nebraska, non-Chicago Illinois — with children in tow — visiting their national capital on money they had saved, to show the kids a heritage, in which they took a naïve and often beautiful pride. They had no prejudices, which I could discern; they were themselves aloof from Washington expectations. I noticed that their children were better behaved than either the spoilt, or the depraved of the city; that they were, in the main, respectful and orderly, and often wide-eyed. Too, especially on Sunday mornings, I noticed that all these people were Christian, of one flavour or another. They came from an America that is a “time capsule” to the urban and urbane.

I mention them because I am trying to avoid the notion that there are only two classes. My point is about a complex system of apartheid imposed through social engineering, and for which the worker-bees of the outback pose a constantly diminishing threat; for America is ever more urbanized. It was not anyway in their repertoire to make demands, to express group “rights.” These people were apolitical, “normal”: I loved their ease and their laughter, their comfort in their own skins (some dark, some light).

Too, I should make clear I use the word “race” in the old cultural sense, quite distinct from “colour.” (Like this gentleman, here.) There are white and brown and other-coloured underclasses, and the monied white disdain for “white trash” is what makes their unspoken views on the other colours sustainable to themselves. They take their caste privileges as a part of nature; their claim to liberality goes with their station.

They imagine the “white trash” are uniquely “racist.” Yet they are far from colour-blind themselves, and I was several times struck by warnings from nice liberal people not to venture east of an imaginary boundary in DC, to where I might be, as a white man, in danger for my life. It was like being told not to enter the cages of wild zoo animals; or if compelled to do so, to wear the prophylactic, painted, “I’m tolerant” white-liberal smile, and avoid any movement that might trigger an attack. (Whereas, when I went east without the uptight, condescending smile, I was received quite warmly.)

Nor would I wish to be sociological; for statistical sociology is the tool of the social engineers, for whom men come in sets with numbers. What interests me is instead the apartheid policy at the heart of the welfare state: the policy of arranging its supporters into a patchwork of “gated communities,” so that each may be insulated from troubling contact with the others, and the political “sales messages” can be tailored to the “demographics,” one set at a time.

Micromanagement requires filing of this sort. A term such as “the common man” is instinctively taken as a reference to a certain class of people. The specific group depends on the context: each to be handled in a particular way.

Whereas, the basic scheme of Christianity is to see through race, colour, stratification — to look upon all as sinners, yet each as made in the image of God. The “common” in the common man is what we have in common, not what distinguishes us from the members of another human class. It embraces all causes, whether lost or found.


Lately, I have been mightily irritated by the politically-correct campaign to permanently banish the old Confederate flag, and all music associated with the Southern cause, or any symbol that it once existed, before it was comprehensively defeated a century-and-a-half ago. Memorials of Robert E. Lee are being treated as memorials of Adolf Q. Hitler.

It strikes me that even under the old lamentable cotton-plantation slave system of the South, people mixed and got to smell one another — rich and poor, black and white, genteel and grotesque. That, the most forgotten slogan of the Dixie Land was her war cry: “Down with the Eagle, and up with the Cross!” That, it is the Cross of Saint Andrew astride the old Confederate flag that is most galling to the hyper-secular, liberal mind. That, the greatest triumph of the Union propaganda was to tar all those flag-bearers in the way our contemporary media demean all dissenters from the current party line as “racists,” “sexists,” “phobes,” and nothing more. That, the principal crime of the South was to stand by the wording of the U.S. Constitution, and from the beginning, to get in the way of a grand national scheme for social engineering, which triumphed with Lincoln (though hardly a liberal by the standards of today). That, in the Southern view, the eagle swooped down on them, with claws.

Something similar is now happening in the division of “Red States” and “Blue”: in an America from which the Christian conception of the “common man” is being systematically expunged. All who resist the categories to which they have been assigned are instinctively rebelling; “victim” and “oppressor” alike. This is what “common men” will do, when tarred and pressed, often without fully understanding why they rebel. They remember, however obliquely, whose sons and daughters they are. That, no matter how low in social station, they are Christ’s, and not the segregated chattels of some malicious and incompetent — and intentionally divisive — Washington Nanny.

The recovery of USA, and more largely, the recovery of Christendom, turns on the recovery of this conception of the “common man” — as Man, not as member of a client group. This has nought to do with “equality,” for it is none of a government’s business to help one group get even with another. Rather it is to serve man as man. This is a matter that goes deeper even than slavery, as Saint Paul explained. It is an unarguable, even mystical point. Where that conception survives, of the common in man, Christendom persists, and can potentially flourish.

Yes: that old Christendom, that Cross, which appeals to no class, no race, no colour, no nation, but to men of goodwill, wherever they may be found. It was the Land where I was born in, and I’ll took my stand.

(Roll the credits.)

On discernment

True, I am a simpleton, with a weak hold on the English language (and yet weaker on any other). My difficulties begin with basic vocabulary. There are words that pass over my head, not as the baptismal dove, but like some poorly-aimed vegetable matter. Even if it splatter me — as for instance let us take the word “discernment” — it leaves little beyond a desire to wash.

I can, for instance, discern the colour blue from the colour red; or the direction up from the direction down, given planetary gravity. I can do singulars and plurals. I am also good on telling left from right, though not always at judging if the wind is quite southerly. Hawks and handsaws seem distinct, at close range.

This morning I discerned a crow, atop an apartment elevator shaft, two blocks away. This was because it was saying, “Caw, caw.” And, “caw.” Too, it was coal black, and when viewed from my balconata, through my 7×50 binoculars, had a distinctly crow-like shape and profile. Might it instead have been a raven? On mature reflection, I decided, no. It had not the size or shagginess for that. The beak was slimmer, and it lacked the wedge tail. Moreover it was pacing, just like a crow.

Quite frankly, I would rather have seen a raven, but had to admit (if only to myself) that “the facts is the facts.” Even more, I would have liked to see a hummingbird, or a peacock. Or best of all, a pterodactyl. But no luck. On the other hand, I thought, “A crow beats yet another pigeon.”

But let us consider instead my hero, Saint Philip Neri. He was renowned for “the discernment of spirits.” This was within his “charisma,” or gift. As any art, it was honed in study and practice. Saint Philip was an inveterate reader, especially of “books beginning with the letter S” (i.e. those about saints). He had the faculty for giving people his full attention. He had the task of the direction of souls, beginning with his own. I can easily believe that, had he to deal with a penitent like me, he could teach me things about myself that I had not previously known.

Or Saint Francis of Sales; or others of the more extraordinary spiritual directors in history: who had that praeternatural ability to “discern” what, in Christian terms, might be described as the configuration of good and evil spirits. I am thinking here especially of Christian psychology prior to the irruption of psycho-analysis and other pop-science frauds; back when, for instance, the voices in your head might be deemed to originate elsewhere; and the soul might be “discerned” to be struggling with principalities and powers; or the man to have admitted the wrong sort of spirits into his confidence.

Which are the spirits that flatter, or torment? And which are the ones that reason? It is well if the penitent can tell these apart.

From my cruelly limited understanding of the Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, it seems to me he is the enemy of illusions. But here some brief attention is required, for these are hardly the sort of illusions our contemporaries might identify, about the very existence of good and bad angels. Ignatius does not doubt they are there. Rather he is conveying, in a carefully structured, precise, and I would almost say “scientific” way, a key to illusions about one’s self, and about one’s disposition towards the good and bad angels. He offers clear and distinct ideas. Verily: the Exercises are useful, for the procedures of spiritual surgery, because they are incredibly sharp.

We must learn, or if you will, discern, that joy has its entry through conscience, and not through the imagination. It is a little paradox that we, as moderns, are ill-equipped to discern. We would rather seek paradise in all the wrong places.

Such as, to give but three examples: sex, and drugs, and rock-and-roll. We are easily convinced that these will make us happy, and that restraint will only make us sad. And surely God wants us to be happy. So He is to blame if they make us sad. How many people I have met, who blame God for the consequences of their own actions. Could there be something they have not discerned?

Yes: the distinction between good and bad angels. For the former tell the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it, and they intend our happiness. But the latter tell us lies, and do not intend our happiness. That is why it is so important, why it is even in one’s personal interest, to distinguish the former from the latter.

Since we are all moderns, in this cyberspace at present, I should mention that while there are some who deny, everyone believes in angels. This much is innate. Their presence is acknowledged in every culture, and I will not hear any nonsense to the contrary. Only a bad angel could tell you that angels do not actually exist; and only a fool will believe him. Discernment might begin in suspecting that we are being had on, by this bad angel.

But how much worse if one were being had on by a priest. And worse still, by one who thinks he is discerning “grey areas” between good and evil; who encourages us to think there could be good mixed in certain evils, and evils mixed in certain goods. As opposed to helping us clarify the one from the other, in all things. To his wide experience with souls, we appeal for help. How to extricate oneself from an evil, without sacrificing the adjoining good? That is his job, on assignment from our Master — quite broadly, the cure of souls.

Sometimes it is complicated. Never is it mush.

Christ did not propose any “reasonable middle way” between good and evil; between the truth and the lie. He was totally partisan, and downright confrontational. (Oh please, gently doubtful reader: go read the Gospels for yourself.)

I think we are dealing with a new concept or definition of “discernment”; and therein lies my confusion. The idea that there are, and I quote, “overly clear and distinct ideas,” has my little head spinning. Even though raised by non-practising post-Christians, I was never fed sludge like that. I would not have thought that moral distinctions could be made clear enough. If an angel told me to avoid clarity, I would jot down his rank and badge number. The one who suggested that my sins might be “okay,” in the murky context of my previous mortal sinning — that I was now “good to go” for Communion, in that execrable state — well, what can I say?

“Bad angel!”

He is setting me up. He is feeding me the exact opposite of mercy.

Now, perhaps I would continue to sin, because, after all, I am a bad person. But knowing sin is sin is a start. Already one has some small distance from it. To be told, rather, that it is not crisp objective sin — to be douched, rather, in some grey lagoon — cannot be helpful. It leaves one with no prospect of ever being clean. It does not turn the mind towards holiness, purity, sanctity; rather, towards the contemplation of, “What can I get away with?”

A crow is a crow is a crow. That, I affirm, is the beginning of wisdom. There is more to know, but we can build on that.

The ground beneath her feet

The epicentre of the Italian earthquake was by Nursia (Norcia in current Italian), birthplace of Saint Benedict, and his twin sister, Saint Scholastica, in the year 480. An oratory was built over the Roman foundations of their family home, for the pilgrims who came to pray with the founder of Western monasticism. Then, by the tenth century, it had become a thriving monastery itself. Fortified: for from the ninth century, Saracen invaders had found their way up the hills to it, in raids and spoliations. (Through four centuries before the Crusades, southern Europe was under constant Muslim attack, slaughter and pillage; then sporadically through seven centuries after.)

More recently, a cosmic artillery has been bearing down. The Umbrian quake of 1997 was centred a little to the north-west; that which levelled much of L’Aquila in 2009 a little to the south-east; yesterday’s hit was a bullseye. Tens of thousands are once again homeless in the region; less a few hundred who are dead. The Monastero di San Benedetto di Norcia took quite a shaking, through terrifying shock and aftershocks; plaster down and much broken glass. But not nearly as much damage as in the surrounding mountain hamlets and small towns.

(Here is a report from an old Toronto friend who lives there now.)

The Apennine range is itself the product of collisions and subductions. The continental plates of Africa and Europe are contending; faults run down the whole spine of Italy. Earthquakes are common in the mountains, and though painful, are no surprise. Nursia has experienced at least three hundred since Benedict’s time, including several much worse than the latest. It sits right over the “Norcian Fault System,” after all. The quake of 14th January 1703, for instance, was several times harder; opening chasms in the earth, and toppling statuary far away in Rome.

Lives and property are always at risk, as I mentioned a couple of posts back. Let us pray for the dead, and for the survivors, and help them pick up the pieces if we can.

Sometimes ancient monuments are cracked, though usually they are restorable. The frustration of the current Nursian monks — mostly traditionalist Americans who came in the year 2000 to resume its Benedictine mission — can be imagined. (Each year they provide hospitality for about fifty thousand pilgrims; they also brew a magnificent beer.) They have just watched sixteen years of their own heroic restoration efforts, dissolve in less than a minute. But the structural members were soundly laid. The old stone rocks with the waves, the great timbers creak and flex. But then they return to their original settings.

One might call this the editing function of earthquakes. The ancient and mediaeval masonry stands, as it has done through the previous earthquakes. More recent buildings collapse on their inhabitants. The former were raised up with humble prayer and hard-won experience; with native materials and by rule of thumb. The most recent were quickly jerry-built, in the cocky self-confidence of credentialled engineers, doing cost/benefit on money alone. Their pride is in themselves; the mediaeval architects, often anonymous, mortared their pride into their buildings. Yet some of the modern innovations are unquestionably improvements. (Perhaps one in a thousand.)

A comparison could be made with the works of Vatican II, or more precisely, with pre- and post-conciliar innovations which, by a little shaking, come down on the orphaned Catholic faithful, and drive them into the secular streets. Whereas, that part of the Church built solidly upon the Old Mass, and the words of Christ as spoken, remains standing, even by the epicentre of the “reforms.” She will need some repairs; she always needs repairs; but she will not need to be cleared by the bulldozers. Only the “modernist” part of our Church becomes uninhabitable.


An Anglican priest, of beloved memory — a man of genuine, simple faith, though of considerable learning — told me what follows, back in the ’eighties. That was when his denomination (and mine, at the time) was busily ordaining its first priestesses. He said that while he was personally opposed to the innovation, “We must wait and see how it works out.”

He said, “In a hundred years, we will still have women singing in the sanctuary, or else we will not. Over time, God will show us whether we have made a mistake. …

“Yes, God will decide,” he added, after a moment of reflection, and with a touch of horror, “if there will still be an Anglican communion in a hundred years.”

And in a hundred years, we will also learn if the ambitious contemporary innovations in our own Roman communion will be remembered, as anything more than a night fever, or very bad dream.

For the truth is, except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.

Positive reinforcement

“The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed.”

I pick up such delightful phrases in my (entirely unnecessary) morning ramble through the news on the Internet. This one had me giggling, for, in addition to applying to the test flight of a commercial blimp — which nose-dived upon approaching the ground — it seemed to explain everything else.

Other items included the information that the driver of a Great Western train that derailed while pulling into Paddington station, after passing through a double red light, thus crippling rail service across much of England for a few days in June, was in the sixteenth hour of a Ramadan fast.

“The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed.”

Or news that our Canadian RCMP (“the Mounties”) will allow female officers to wear hijabs. This adventure began a quarter-century ago with Sikh turbans; but where will it end? What, for instance, will be the Mounties’ response to transgender requests? Especially when these cross-pollinate with their multicultural agenda?

“The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed.”

Or, the young backpacker in a Queensland hostel whose journey ended when she was stabbed to death by a gentleman from France shouting, “Allahu akhbar!” This in front of thirty witnesses, including a man and a dog who tried to intervene. (Both are in critical condition.) The grief machine has been cranked back up in the tabloids, with social media excerpts from the much happier former life of the victim — a popular, and quite photogenic, 21-year-old from Derbyshire.

“We don’t have a motive yet,” said the police spokesman.

Alternatively, he could have said: “The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed.”

Mere chance, of course, that the next three items to catch my attention after the dirigible prang happened to involve members of the same, formerly non-Western religion. I’m sure Catholics crash trains during Lent, stab strangers while reciting their Credo, and should be allowed to wear mantillas while serving in the Mounties. And it is probably the heavily pro-Catholic bias of the media that keeps such stories out of view.

“Whatever,” as we say today, whenever required to make choices. Or since that expression is getting tired, I propose to replace it with:

“The flight went really well and the only issue was when it landed.”

Movers versus Shakers

There is no safe place on earth, and as we have become aware through developments in astronomy, the planet itself is exposed to celestial flotsam such as asteroids, and effluvia from decaying stars, including any in our near vicinity that may happen to go supernova.

Verily, I am reminded in my walks through the Greater Parkdale Area, that modern technical contraptions (such as these fiendish powered wheelchairs in which the elderly now buzz themselves about) are not only wasteful, intrusive, and noisome by design, but characteristically lethal.

Within my ivory tower, an insurance adjustor could surely spot any number of palpable threats, not restricted to spontaneous combustion; and with the annual Lakefront airshow approaching I am reminded that, at any moment, the pilot of a low-flying jet, executing a sharp turn over Humber Bay, might succumb to G-forces and take out the whole building. (Should this Idleblog disappear during the first weekend in September, gentle reader may assume the worst.)

Having spent some part of the summer attending funerals, and another part reading accounts of defunct, pre-Christian civilizations, I am put in poignant recollection of the span of human life. Notwithstanding, there are things that survive us — ruins, chiefly; but also the odd robust child. And so it is, that until our thoughts turn or are turned definitively upward, we hope to preserve a few valuables for the use and instruction of generations to come.


From an early age, I was curious about the Shakers: the extraordinary beauty of everything they made, in comparison to our contemporary vileness. This strange, nearly lunatic sect, believing the end of the world to be nigh, retired to attractive rural settings in Appalachia and beyond, to live apart from the concupiscent worldlings. They legislated celibacy for their members, and interpreted the range of domestic tasks as acts of constant prayer. (“Hands to work, hearts to God.”) They celebrated the Presence in otherworldly line-dancing, the sexes facing in chaste rows. Indeed, that is how they came by the name, “Shakers.”

They had, incidentally, like mediaeval Catholics (whom they resembled in other subtle ways), no particular objection to mechanical implements or labour-saving contrivances, provided that they did not pollute, made no unpleasant sound, and were not otherwise ostentatious or obnoxious. They generated electricity; did admirable plumbing; delighted in modest farm machines. Most of their inventions, however, reflect a Zen-like simplicity and concentration of mind: spring clothes-pins, for instance, and circular saw blades, and seed envelopes, and the flat-edged broom. They took out an impressive number of remunerative patents — for neither Jews nor Christians were ever required by their religion to behave as freierim (“suckers”). And while they never took a penny from guvmint, they faithfully paid their taxes, only asking to be excused from killing the guvmint’s enemies during the U.S. Civil War.

Children, when orphans like themselves, they gladly took in and schooled; trade they conducted with the world through their elders; but more than this they would not exchange. Tourists they turned away; but welcomed the sceptical, investigators, pilgrims. Their shockingly spare furniture, and buildings, were made to the highest achievable standards of hand-craftsmanship, each object designed “to last a thousand years.” Anything sub-standard was immediately broken up.

I think God used them — to show us that, even in America, and in the labour of everyday life, holiness is possible. Or shall we say, especially in America, and even in the denominational confusion that came out of the squalour of the Reformation.

Except the settlement at Sabbathday Lake in Maine (which, I have heard, is growing again), the Shakers have died out. But they did hang in for a couple of centuries, and their goods remain to taunt us in our world of wide-screens and candy wrappers.

This instinct to build, exactly, for permanence — even in the face of our bodily extinction, and the inevitable destruction of all human works — is what I shall recommend this morning. It is the best, or most practical way to slow our frenetic rat races, and put us back into fellowship with the men and women of all places and times.

Make everything better than it needs to be made; refuse to accept inferior merchandise; smash unworthy possessions; do everything in the sight of Eternity. Then leave the products of our labour to speak, when we ourselves have become silent; to speak not for us, but for Him who inspired.

As the architect of Seville told his patron: “We will build such and so great a Cathedral that those who look on it will think that we were mad.”

Unless they, too, catch the hint: to embrace what is good, to reject what is evil.

Beyond ornithology

There are, so far as I can count, six kinds of flying creatures about this earth: birds, bats, aeroplanes, helicopters, flies, and pterodactyls. There are many species within each of these orders, and I have simplified this morning’s Idlepost by excluding things that merely float upon the breeze, such as smoke and squirrels.

Indeed, my thoughts in the wee hours of this morning are focused upon pterodactyls, the more interesting to me because I have never seen a live one. Or rather, I don’t think I have. Apparently, no one else claims to have spotted one living, either, but as the pop science logicians insist, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are large areas of the planet I have not personally explored, and moreover, I may have seen one perched on a wire along Queen Street the other evening, when I was returning from the pub. Hard to tell in the poor lighting: it may instead have been a large, dark green, plastic garbage bag, which I would have to class among the gliders.

According to some authorities, the pterodactyls (or “pterosaurs” as they now call them, in their mania for inclusivity), are extinct. But as a reader of BBC Nature I am not so easy to fool. Lots of species, including those presumed extinct, are being photographed these days — even faster than the ecological types can put them on their “endangered” lists.

A better theory, or an equally plausible, is they fly so high that we cannot see them; live on ozone as whales on krill; and dive, when moved to do so, at lightning speed. This would account for the fact that their remains are often found deeply buried in the soil.

Ovid is my authority on questions of evolution. Lucretius gives some good pointers, too; but the Metamorphoses are specifically devoted to the topic, and would be much better appreciated today, if people were properly educated. Ovid’s accounts of the origins of species (he does not make Darwin’s mistake of attributing all to the same causes) includes numerous transformations into winged beings, by condensation, heat, fire, and liquefaction.

Scholars have identified the creatures that sprang from the smoke and ashes of Memnon’s funeral pyre (the memnonides of book XIII) with ruffs and reeves. But the exquisite description (around line 600) of the condensing bubbly lightness in thin, seemingly membranous wings, of whirring pinions and the ascending clamour, might easily apply instead to pterodactyls.

There are many other places where pterodactyls may have been indicated, thanks to the intervention of the dawn goddess, Eos — by Astraeus, mother of the winds and the stars — or some other superlunary mediator; and the general account of the formation of the sky in the De Rerum Natura, from the lighter particles of fire and air, supplies the necessary connectives. For creatures of the sky must partake of the empyrean; are not cloddish and weighted like Icarus and ourselves.

Now, gentle reader may propose problems of chronology, in the modern way. But I do not see that these should be allowed to vex us, in our metamorphic studies. Time, for us, as for all animals once hatched into this world, is the strait arrow; but in the mysterious processes of Creation, there are wormholes everywhere.

Even that atheist, Charles Lyell, author of what he imagined to be The Principles of Geology (1830), assumed that the dinosaurs would return, once climatic conditions became favourable — the iguanodon to the woods, the icthyosaur to the seas, and “the pterodactyle to flit again through the umbrageous groves of tree-ferns” (page 123 in the old two-volume edition). And what atheist and evolutionist would dare to clash with the authority of Lyell, who replaced Genesis in the Darwinian scheme?

Of course the pterodactyls will return. It is only a question of where they are hiding.

Eorum culpa

“O God, I give thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this Republican.”

The passage is a slight update by Timothy Williams at Crisis (here), on the original in Saint Luke. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is among the more biting of Christ’s satires, and an anticipation of what our contemporary Church and her leaders, from popes down, would keep doing. That is, issuing apologies for someone else. Aren’t we Goody Two-Shoes?

As those who have received elementary Christian instruction ought to know, other people’s sins are not our business. We have enough sins of our own to confess, and have performed enough injustices to keep all of our enemies smirking and happy. Trying to apologize for something that e.g. may or may not have been done by our ecclesiastical forebears, one thousand years ago — or have been done by some other faction we frequently disown and despise — does not count for moral purity. Instead it is exemplary of hypocrisy and corruption.

And as Professor Williams, of Steubenville, propounds, the contrast with mediaeval practice is striking. It was typical of men, a thousand years ago, to apologize for their own failures; to look upon their own generation as fallen into filth; and often to compare their own behaviour — unfavourably — with that of their worst enemies.

They could also be ribald, and lively in many other ways. This was an important balancing feature: necessary, I think, to Catholic survival. Having found the mire, we should not sink in it. We need not take counsel of despair. We must maintain a sane appreciation for the fact that, “sin happens”; that it will continue to happen and that the Confessionals are there for a purpose — like shower stalls on the way into church.

If I am right (and I could be, sometimes), the tilt occurred in the Reformation. That is where I first find the fashion emerging, of unctuously apologizing for the other side. It seemed natural for rebels from the Church to distance themselves in this way, from their unworthy ancestors; for Church loyalists to apply the same unction to the rebels — in the course of their respective moral preenings. Though of course, there had been that previous “hermeneutic of rupture,” between East and West, with its legacy of Pharisaical expostulations.

Just yesterday I was saying (at the Thing, here) that it is amazing atheism can survive, in the face of modern scientific discoveries. Today I should like to add it is amazing that the most basic biblical, gospel, Christian principles can be overlooked. But let me not apologize for the people who do this. I do it myself; and ought to be chastised.

Here is where we insert the standard quotation from G. K. Chesterton — that eloquent spokesman for all Christian Dark Ages. To the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” he replied: “I am.”

Salmon from a tin

I love Fridays, because, we get to eat fish. Of course, anyone can do that, who has the money, regardless of his race or cult. But as a Catholic, with some few ascetic aspirations, I try to deny myself fish on the other days. Then I can wake Friday morning with the thought, “Ho! This is a day for fish!”

My spiritual director tells me I still have room for improvement. But he is not a Jansenist. He says, if you happen to like fish, count it a blessing.

My mother, who often made salmon sandwiches, did so habitually on Fridays. This could not have been a Catholic affectation on her part, as she had been declaring herself an Atheist from the age of nineteen. It was instead, I think, an anti-Calvinist gesture. From her, and from my childhood, I retain this enduring recipe.

It begins with Wonderbread. It could begin, instead, with something hard and Danish — a dark, dense, sourdough rye — but then, the sandwich would have to be open-faced, and the bread thick-covered with butter, in the Scandihoovian fashion; or better, contiguous strips of brie. Still, as a traditionalist, I will specify Wonderbread, in doubled soft slices.

Take, from the pantry, a seven-ounce tin of sockeye salmon. (Not the pinko kind!) Drain the water, and empty the rest in a bowl. (It helps to open the tin, first.) Remove, patiently, with a small fork, all evidence that the creature was once a vertebrate. Persist, until overcome with the temptation to mash.

Now come the additives. These will include a full tablespoon of raw lemon juice; ground black pepper (to extravagant taste); and a teaspoon or less of curry powder (Chinese not Indian; emphasis on fennel, cinnamon, cloves). Ideally, too, a finely-chopped spring onion stalk, but I do not find one in the High Doganate today. Then, the spicing having been pressed with intimacy against the fish, splatter in a grand dollop of Hellmann’s “mayonnaise” (America’s national emulsion). Mash, and mash again.

Goes well with celery or crisps of some sort. Serves two Christians, or one pagan.


Here is a stunning ’graf:

“In most parts of Europe, democracy took firm root only after the killings and expulsions of World War II turned countries that had once been home to a large number of minorities deeply homogeneous. Democracy in those places is a creation of the nation state, and for outsiders, membership in those nations has always remained difficult and incomplete.”

This was found by a reader in Slate, of all unlikely places (here). The author, Yascha Mounk, is often an interesting pundit, but beyond this excerpt, the piece is a journalasmic spundle, and the tension Mounk cites between “illiberal democracy” and “undemocratic liberalism” is, the more I think of it, blather. In particular, his notion of undemocratic liberalism — “rights without democracy” — is not something foreseeably upon any table, for there is nowhere in our power elites, or among their populist opponents, a coherent notion of what “rights” might be, let alone their relationship to “custom.”

Here is the paradox that is not a paradox. To the inheritor of power, the idea that rights are also inherited is not hard to grasp. To those who achieve power through their own efforts (whether by electoral methods, or by coup), rights are something that power may dispense — on a level with welfare payments, at best. In a fully functioning, advanced democracy, rights are not recognized but conceded, and those who still have them can only defend them if they are willing to play politics themselves — to which end, they will need to mobilize and coordinate large numbers, or ski the ideological slopes.

We start with illiberal, nanny-state democracy; we end with the democracy part gone. The practice of letting people alone, to make their own lives within their own immediate surroundings in light of their own traditions (with the superaddition of a little physical security) was what came down when the war cry for “democracy” went up — going back one additional World War, and then some. “Classical liberalism” has never been attractive to self-interested politicians; it would leave them with too little power. The word “liberal” is itself something they have adapted to their own uses.

A much less trivial account may be found in e.g. Rémi Brague’s essay, “Are non-theocratic regimes possible?” (here). We post-moderns are under the impression that we have overthrown theocracy — by replacing one kind with another, and imposing it with more arbitrary force.

While superficially, the replacement of God with an abstract conception of Man has demolished “mystical” religious authority, it has done so, and could do so, only by setting a new god, or Mammon, on the cosmic throne. (My terms now.) And this Mammon demands sacrifices much bloodier than will be found in e.g. the ancient Catholic Mass.

“Democracy,” before the World Wars, could exist only in homogeneous countries, and there, only when long-established custom, plus carefully articulated legal principles, prevented the masses from getting involved. From the first breach of populism — the first realization through income tax and other fetters, that one could vote to appropriate someone else’s property — democracy was going to be totalitarian.

Soviet Communism lasted an amazing seventy-four years. In most countries that such as Mr Mounk would call “liberal democracies,” the system has enjoyed a shorter span.

I am not surprised that it is cracking up. I am rather impressed that it could last this long.

The right tool

Much as other porcupines, an Italian porcupine will be generous with his quills; one has only to come near and he will discharge several. Those who deal in book-binding, in paper-mounting and art conservation, will be grateful indeed for so fine a gift. Must it be an Italian porcupine? So I believe. But one need not go to Italy to meet one of these Hystricidae. They are reasonably plentiful in Libya, too, and elsewhere in North Africa, and might even be encountered while visiting Niger, or Chad.

This is the “Italian,” or “crested” porcupine (Hystrix cristata), which most resembles a comet, with his little compressed nugget of a head and continuously expanding coma, or tail; but with the neck and collar quills standing up to present the crest feature. Should gentle reader have, perchance, a garden in Sicily, he may be especially favoured. He need not approach the creature himself. Local dogs and other fauna will do this for him; he need only collect the quills where they fall, among the flowers.

These little harpoons, or quills, are gorgeous in their light and dark bands of a tortoise-shell stiffness and texture, while darker in hue; they will bear the closest sculptural examination. The animal has gone to trouble to make them, ingesting calcium by gnawing on bones, while sharpening his impressive incisors. Those to the fore — thicker, longer, looser — are most worth having. Those to the rear are more firmly attached; are thin, hollow, and shaken in the mass to emit a menacing, hissing rattle, meant to contribute to a dog’s education.

Once retrieved, these fore-quills will be found quite various in their shapes, ends, and sizes, from fine points to subtly flattened stubs, with shafts satisfying to the fingers. One uses them to tamp curls and corners upon carefully shaped drops of glue; they will intrude wisely into edges recessed against raised borderings. They will compress with a precise amount of force. One quill, or another, will answer to each need.

But these are makeshifts compared with the fine tooling of gold leaf; with working colour over the gold; or fixing minute particles of pigment in a consolidant. Whether in the conservation, or in the creation of an illuminated manuscript, icon, or altarpiece — should the job happen to require skill — the porcupine quill comes into its own.

It is true, that one could use toothpicks instead, as I was doing last night while repairing the pasteboard on my copy of Whistler’s Gentle Art of Making Enemies; along with the (excessively hard) spooned end of a tiny metal tool, for a spatula. But toothpicks are crude, rough, stupidly absorbent, and identical, one with another. I longed to sneak into my grandfather’s illumination studio, and lift several items from his desk quiver. Alas, they are now forty years removed from my thieving touch.

De anima

Of course, I am some kind of Christian fanatic, or “Roman candle” as I prefer, but I still think people might have a use, even in areas such as manufacturing, and the economy. I will acknowledge that our replacement by robots has improved efficiency in many trades, especially those involving repetitive tasks. This includes fruit-picking, my Chief Agricultural Correspondent in California has explained, as he looks forward to the transformation of that state’s viticulture, which won’t be needing “wetbacks” any more.

What would the sciences be without robots? Or the arts, now that we know they can pot, paint, sculpt, and compose elevator music, as good as or better than our contemporary artists, and much, much, faster. Many blogs, and most comments threads, already appear to be written by robots; others could be improved by them. (I would give Internet links to all this stuff, if I cared.) They may also be able to act better, on stage. And while humans still have the advantage in other forms of entertainment, such as politics and slapstick comedy, robotic cameras and drones do a sterling job of capturing “the action.”

Yes, machines, for any specialization — and we have now some to design machines, thus progressively eliminating the need for engineers — can create a wonderful new world of leisure in which only the “one percent” need do any work at all. And as the humanistic Left have foreseen, their income may be impounded to provide pogey for the other ninety-nine. Alternatively, these “extras” could be progressively aborted, or painlessly euthanized, with numerous environmental benefits, including an end to any possibility of anthropogenic global warming. (There are people who object to capital punishment, but only for criminals; who, left to their own devices, tend to self-annihilate anyway.)

Moreover, should the machines discover some future practical use for humans, they will have the means to clone, to exact genetic specifications, thanks to the heritage of embryonic stem cell research. Better than humans, it now appears that “chimeras” can be hatched — in which a bit of human brain can be grown into the brawn of other animals, or vice versa. (Think of the revolution in policing!) And they may then be replicated, with incremental improvements.

Critics have warned against unforeseen difficulties, such as the early-onset arthritis that afflicted poor Dolly the Sheep, twenty years ago. But who needs old sheep? (And soon, who will need lamb, mutton, parchment, or wool?) Besides, further experimentation has solved that problem, and we now have cloned sheep that outlive the uncloned, in perfect health — sheep that may thus enjoy a higher “quality of life” by all of our current statistical markers, minded by unsleeping robotic shepherds.

Others — e.g. religious nuts like me — raise “ethical” objections, to slow the advancement of science. But what are ethics to a machine? Or for that matter, to the Obama administration?

So perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps that is the next stage of planetary evolution, and blogs like this one are merely cluttering the stream, like those ants in the Amazon I mentioned yesterday, or Mr Glenn Reynolds’s “army of Davids.”

Now that I think of it, perhaps the Darwin God has evolved human-like creatures on innumerable other planets in our galaxy, and beyond; and perhaps they did not destroy themselves in ghastly nuclear wars, or other conflagrations. Maybe they were simply outmoded by robots which, taking stock of new circumstances, calmly extinguished all surviving “organic” life; having machines that could mine and process any raw materials they might require, without the inconvenience of slave revolts. We look mistakenly for exoplanets that might accommodate water and trees, when instead we should be looking for those that are hard, smooth, shiny, and uncommunicative.

The question comes to mind, why would the machines wish to perpetuate themselves? I can’t think of a reason, except obsolete human programming — attesting the fact that humans are irrational; so many of them crazy Luddites, like me.

The why-I-am-not chronicles

Often I am asked by correspondents to define something they call “conservatism.” I rather thought I’d answered this question before, though it is always possible I was mumbling. So lest there be confusion, or perchance new readers, let me give the definition again.

Conservatism is a form of embarrassment or timidity; in an American context, the politics of the cartoon character, Caspar Milquetoast (see here). It is a way of standing astride history to say, “Please watch where you are going,” while being run over. It is a form of apology for being alive.

And no, Trump is not a conservative. He is what is called a “populist,” or to use the older term, insane.

The problem with these “conservatives” today is that they are too conservative. They merely oppose change. Each new generation of them becomes the rearguard for the previous liberal vanguard. They accept the revolutionary advances imposed by the last team of social engineers as “a fact of political life,” that only a fool would gainsay. They survive by breeding, I suppose, but also by adding new constituencies to their ranks, as the liberals safely discard them; then selling out each in turn.

“Free trade” was an example from decades ago. The liberals didn’t want that any more, so the conservatives became the free trade party. Skip forward another three score and ten, and the conservatives are now becoming the “gay” party. They are defending the right of homosexual persons to stay gay on their own terms, as the liberal agenda “moves on.” Along the way they (the cons) bought into second- then third-wave feminism, and now they are the old-fashioned, liberated women’s party, too. In another generation they’ll be defending old-fashioned mixed bathrooms, and the old-fashioned post-sexed against … what? (We must wait and see.)

The function of the modern conservative is to be sincerely appalled by the engineers’ latest proposal, without being able to remember why. And they will resist, cautiously, in the certainty that they will lose. Whenupon their children will go to work, consolidating their loss, to prepare for surrender in the mop-up round.

I hope I have made their position clear.

Notice my use of the gender-neutral pronoun, “they.” I do not use “we” because I do not consider myself to be “a conservative,” except for some purposes of contorted shorthand, when someone calls me that, by way of insulting my intelligence, and I realize it’s the best he can do. One nods, grimly.

Perhaps there is some point in devoting one’s life to slightly impeding the Permanent Revolution, as ants in the Amazon drown themselves trying to build a dam. Perhaps Heaven commends those who briefly got in the way. Someone will have to explain that to me. My own understanding of the Just Culture War, is that you must win it. While the latest revolutionary proposal might be opposed, as evil, it seems to me, the effect is lost if the last is conceded as not being evil any more.

In the Anglophonian world, the “Tory” faction — attractively derived from the Erse term, tóraidhe, for an Irish rebel or brigand — began as Jacobites, defending dear old James II and VII against the Inglorious Revolution of 1688. (Unsuccessfully.) In fact, the label was popularized by the great liar, Titus Oates, who spent most of his waking hours inventing and publicizing “popish plots.” (I cannot imagine his sleeping ones.) Before him, the popish plotters and their friends were more commonly known as “Abhorers.” They ranged themselves against the “Whig” faction, from the Scots term for mule-drivers.

Surely everyone knows this already.

Cavaliers versus Roundheads had been another way to put it. But the Cavaliers had already abandoned the principles of Catholic theocracy which I, for one, am still eager to vindicate. They now championed only the right of the British peoples to be governed by legitimate monarchs, as opposed to linguistically-challenged, low-class immigrants from obscure Protestant townships in Germany, located in some genealogical search. Having to their credit finally seen off Cromwell, they then made the critical mistake of losing the next round.

Whereas, I draw the line at Tudors, and propose that we set about undoing every single liberal innovation since 1530, at the very latest. I believe this position is called, “reactionary.”