Essays in Idleness


Debating point

Resolved: that a faithful Catholic today has more in common with an old-fashioned Orangeman or violent Paisleyite than with most of his own bishops.

The point, raised hardly for the first time, came to me again with the British election, from Eire — the southern, not the northern jurisdiction, and indeed, my Chief Western Irish Veterinary Correspondent, whose subscription to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not in question. He wrote, “Perhaps the result has a silver lining. The DUP may keep the Tories honest.”

The DUP being the Democratic Unionist Party, founded by Ian Paisley in 1971, whose anti-Roman propensities were formerly not in question, either. Theresa May will need their ten votes from Ulster in the British House to retain the confidence of Parliament, and that means she will have to listen (very politely) to a party that is against (for instance) abortion and same-sex marriage. This, to my mind, made the Thursday election almost worth having, and might indicate, according to another correspondent in Yorkshire, the “hidden hand of the Highest” in the redistribution of seats.

I am myself still smiling, at the discomfiture of scribes in even the Daily Telegraph, who have trotted out their feminist ponies to bray. For to the modern, urbane, forward-looking, wide-tent, so-called “conservative,” ideas such as “never kill babies,” or “marriage is between a woman and a man,” have passed through debatable to unspeakable. They know they have allies who harbour such views, but come as close as they ever do to praying, that those allies will have the good manners to shut up.

And I could quote contemporary Rome to the same effect, telling pro-life advocates to pipe down a bit; to stop being so darn judgemental about objective mortal sin, and get on the Climate Change Chariot instead. Oddly, I am told to go to Confession for my “sins against the environment,” in which class would be my earnestly-held belief that most environmentalist propaganda is sham and imposture.

Not all bishops, I should add, in returning to the debating resolution, above. Each time I hear a remark from e.g. Cardinal Sarah, I am reminded that orthodox Catholics still exist, and that their focus remains on the spiritual. But when it comes to moral, and by extension, political principles, what the Church has taught through the last two millennia is unambiguous. The preaching, specifically against abortion, and sexual perversion, was a feature of the Church in her first centuries; and among the Jews it goes back millennia more. It won us enemies then, and ought to be winning us enemies today.

Call me an Orangeman or a violent Paisleyite. By whomever the ancient Catholic doctrines are taught, I propose to respond with a resounding, “Hear! Hear!”

The youff have spoken

“We have people never trained to think anything through, leaping to their grimly predictable conclusions, with the strange complacency of a seething mob, animated by demagogues, and monitored by pollsters.”

I am quoting myself, from this morning’s Catholic Thing (here). Or rather, I am quoting my muse, Calliope — who is, if possible, more contemptuous of democracy than I — in light of the British election I was foolishly watching past midnight last evening. Congratulations on her victory to Theresa May.

And yes, I am being facetious, for the “youff vote” seems to have come out, after all, for the socialist lunatic, Jeremy Corbyn, so that Mrs May is now perhaps the only voter in Britain who does not know she is finished. (“Stiff upper lip.”)

Nostalgia comes into all of my examinations of British constituency results. I read numbers but remember voices, and faces — by now from another generation, and many surely dead. Another generation that was, in its way, no wight more sane. On topics they knew anything about — gardening, for instance, or how they liked their tea — they could be quite thoughtful, and informed. Politics were not a topic they knew anything about, or that anyone could know, since they are invariably conducted in a dark place.

By which I don’t mean to suggest conspiracies. There are, in mass-market democratic practice, too many factors in play to let any conspiracy work. Like many other human things beyond human control, to fully appreciate the possibilities and angles, one would have to be The Devil. Among my reasons for keeping things as simple as things can be kept, is to somewhat limit his scope. Democracy may sound simple, in the mouth of a rhetorician, from a plain tally, but it is reached by a complex and devious route that is constantly changing.

What good can come of this? I was trying to think of the upside while noting the sudden rise of Corbyn, in the gaming hall of a hung Parliament.

I lived in England — London, to be more frank, but with much wandering about — through the middle ’seventies and for a shorter spell in the early ’eighties. By the late ’nineties I visited a place that had been in many ways transformed, and clearly for the worse, by the Thatcher Revolution. Tinsel wealth had spread everywhere, trickling down into every crevice. Tony Blair surfed the glitter, and people with the most discouraging lower-class accents were wearing loud, expensive, off-the-rack garments, and carrying laptops and briefcases. No hats. It was a land in which one could no longer find beans-egg-sausage-and-toast for thirty-five new pence, nor enter the museums for free.

I missed that old Labour England, with the coalfield strikes, and the economy in free fall; with everything so broken, and all the empty houses in which one could squat; the quiet of post-industrial inanition, and the working classes all kept in their place by the unions. I loved the physical decay, the leisurely way people went about their charmingly miserable lives. Cricket still played in cricket whites; the plaster coming off the walls in pubs. It was all so poetical. And yes, Mrs Thatcher had ruined all that. For a blissful moment I was thinking, Corbyn could bring it back.

Actually, he would bring something more like Venezuela, but like the youff of England, one can still dream.

Better homes & gardens

While I risk agreeing with Voltaire (“we must cultivate our garden”) I should wish to do so in the cause of the organized religion that he was satirizing. The man had so many opinions, he could not help getting some right, and in Candide’s foolish and persistent optimism there is that seed of quixotic Hope which his author was determined to extinguish. Both views are correct. One should be eternally hopeful, and one’s hopes should be repeatedly crushed. This is how wine is made from grapes, if we add a certain ageing process.

Moreover, we should cultivate our homes and gardens. The shelter we seek from an unpleasant human world — growing worse in its unbelief and faithlessness — is a human shelter. That is to say, something better than the nest Bodo and Katrina (a pigeon couple of my over-acquaintance) have tried to build on my balconata, while I have tried to disrupt them. All is lost, all nests are lost in the end, and a time will come when no trace remains of pigeons or persons alike — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The wine, too, will be spilt forever. That is how things are. Those without a view of Perfection, have, like the height-impaired in the old song, “no reason to live.” They only seek wretched transient pleasures, from which they will guiltily “move on.”

Last week I sat in a small and delightful fern garden; a little patch of paradise set apart yet within the crashing vulgarity of contemporary London, Ontario. I was house guest to my friends Herman Goodden and Kirtley Jarvis, both artists of some kind. Herman I first met thirty years ago: a talented essayist and playwright, stuck in the toilet of modern journalism. Kirtley is an inspired graphic artist, with an eagle eye for detail and chance.

You have a bowl of glass and porcelain marbles that no one plays with any more; and a gravel path through the ferns and flowers. What is more sensible than to scatter the marbles along the path? The effect was beautiful, and within the security of garden walls, it will remain for a generation. (Civilization starts with walls.)

The whole tiny yard is like that, made a vast space from found objects concealed and revealed: a garden of inscriptions. Kirtley’s tiny studio presides from the rear; a bicycle shed has been subtly accommodated. The bicycle that comes out is a dark red one-speed antique, that puts all high-tech bicycles to shame. For the slower one rides, the larger and more interesting the world becomes.

My friends are poor, by the minimum-wage standard. They have always been so — God meant artists to struggle — yet raised a flock of children with one closet-sized bathroom. They have never moved, and will never, voluntarily. Within, the bungalow is a mansion, every corner an exhilarating feast for the eyes. An art gallery, a big library, and multiple workplaces have been somehow fitted in. With the simplest market ingredients, banquets emerge from the kitchenette. For of course the place also serves as a guest house, and a modest community meeting hall.

Disaster will strike, and we must be ready. But meanwhile there is time for us to cultivate our garden. My friends are internal exiles from that old Puritan Ontario, who turned back into mediaeval Catholics; for also they rebelled against the deadly grim consumerist machine to which America’s dourness descended. With time and love it can be overthrown. For in time, ancient traditions are rekindled, and the mystical life is patiently restored. “Be still and know.”

I have known several such homes and gardens, and some like this still exist. They are the small centres of our renewal, walled in from the barbarity outside. But this has always been so, and as Mr Goodden says, he need not buy any spanking new “Benedict Option,” for he owned one already. The words, “Bless this house,” announced it from the start.

D Day

An image that sticks to mind is of the phosphorous shells.

Gentle reader must imagine himself a German soldier, in a bunker or pillbox atop the cliffs over the Normandy beaches; or elsewhere in the concrete maze of their “Atlantic Wall.” He could be young or old. If the latter, he has already served on the Eastern Front, and may be missing bits of finger from frostbite. Or he is sixteen and freshly enlisted. In either case he may be suffering from some further disability: slightly retarded, perhaps, or gimpish, or entirely lacking in family connexions.

Being sent to France had seemed pure luck. Of course, any place might be paradise, compared with Stalingrad. This place had French cheeses, fine asparagus, and all the other products of the Normandy farms; and pretty French girls, strangely addicted to German boiled sweets; officers, too, a little soft in the head; and, … taverns! Weeks would pass with no indication of war. Most days, no traffic whatever on the English Channel. Sometimes, through binoculars, a lonely destroyer could be seen hugging the English shore. Sometimes the Allies sent bombers — hit or miss. Mostly miss.

The night into June 6th, 1944, was disturbing, however. No one could recall such sustained bombing: from around midnight, wave after wave. But the ominous thing was when the bombing stopped: everywhere, at precisely 5:30 a.m. That, and the fact that thousands of vessels, of all sizes but many of them huge, were gradually approaching the French shore. No one had ever seen so many ships, and it remains the largest armada in history. Some day, each German had felt in his gut, this was going to happen. Just another Dieppe, his officers told him. Evidently it was happening today.

My details are from a new German “oral history” of the Normandy landings (this one), gathered from that side. My Chief Texas Correspondent sent me a copy when it came out last March. I found it gripping.

Now where were we? Ah yes, in that bunker, in that concrete maze, staring in amazement at the approaching Allied fleet. Binoculars no longer needed.

A most amazing thing was the amphibious tanks, dropped in the water then driving out onto the shingle. Was such a thing possible? Another was the Luftwaffe — oddly missing from this scene. An aeroplane requires a lot of vital parts, and shortages had grounded all but a few, quickly shot down when they attempted reconnaissance.

The German front line was there to slow and scramble the landings; the serious defences were a few hundred yards inland. It was now that the soldier realized that his function was to die in a hopeless cause. The strafing proper began.

A phosphorous shell lands in your chamber, among a dozen or so of your recent friends. At first you almost laugh. The effect is comic. You were bracing for the big bang; this thing just splashes what looks like white paint, all over the place. But you have perhaps three minutes to live; less, if you are lucky. Those who inhale burn from the inside out; those who don’t, from the outside in.

These munitions were most likely “made in USA,” but every side used them in this Total War. I’d rather have been at Hiroshima.

Trying to surrender was a hare-brained idea: stand up and you’re instantly a bullet bag. You gave the enemy everything you had, then laid down with your ancestors. By miracle, perhaps one in twenty, or one in a hundred, survived the frontal onslaught. It depended where you were. In that case you went to a prison camp: the best fate of all.

Spin forward a day or two. German prisoner is now in Allied troop boat, ferrying to England. Like a tourist, he takes in the view.

As far as he can see, along the beaches, a carpet of British, Canadian, American, and miscellaneous corpses. And in the water, this carpet floats, for the better part of a mile offshore. Tens of thousands of them, linked together in victory, face up or face down.

Of idle lingering

I am not the world’s quickest take-charge, get-things-done sort of guy — that’s why they named me after Fabius Cunctator. The agnomen of this Roman general and Censor (280–203 BC) was not “idler” but rather “lingerer” in its nearest English equivalent. But this is a variation on idling. He was famous for winning by putting decisions off, and hanging around instead of doing something. He was also known among the troops as “Wart Face,” incidentally.

This is a gift shared among few generals, or Censors for that matter. (Not warts, but the do-nothing skill.) The Censorship was a marvellous Roman office, the holder of which was wise to do as little as possible. He was a man with extraordinary power to say, “No.” True, he oversaw the public census, a wickedly activist enterprise. But at its most innocent its point was merely to find out what is going on. For the rest, our hero, when in the office of Censor, could stop things from happening, including stupid and vicious government programmes. How I wish our modern government had a Censor, and how I should like to have that job. (Cato the Censor is another of my heroes.)

Now, the person who seems to do nothing isn’t necessarily doing nothing. He might instead be doing something invisible. As a general during the Second Punic War, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (this last refers to his lemon scabs), my celebrated Cunctator, did quite a few invisible things. Badly outnumbered on any conceivable battlefield, he focused on whittling the Carthaginians down, with frequent, often quite devastating, commando attacks on their supply lines, and similar aggravations. Make the enemy punch the air, as it were. Deny him the big battle he so earnestly wants.

This is the strategy of that ancient Chinaman, Sun Tzu, praised recently in another context. The ideal is to patiently allow the enemy to defeat himself, while one appears only to be watching, or even not watching, from a distance.

As this is not a Roman History anti-blogue, I will not go into such details as I recall from school days; but Mrs Hansen, my Viking (Danish) sometime Latin teacher, was especially entertaining on Fabius. For you see, he was turning tables on opponents who were themselves adept in unconventional warfare, as Hannibal taking his elephants through the Alps to surprise the Romans during the same Mediterranean conflict. (I often have heroes on both sides of a good war.)

My purpose this morning, back in the High Doganate after a week of jet-setting, or more exactly omnibus-setting in the Upper Canadian hinterland, is to recall gentle reader to the virtue of inaction. Or more precisely, apparent inaction.

I notice there has been yet another terror hit in my absence, by bad Muslims in the United Kingdom. I am of course appalled, though as Theresa May was pointlessly projecting, we’re getting sick of this kind of thing. I’m now sick of our characteristic response, which is to make fresh protestations of how brave and tolerant we are, while loudly bombing people elsewhere.

Whereas, I’m for quietly settling scores. Our enemy du jour benefits from our democratic lust for a puerile and showy activism. They are flies, and we are swatting flies like crazy. The bigger the fly-swatting operation they can inspire, the better for them. Indeed, for this enemy we are dumber than Carthaginians, who did not need to signal their virtue by encouraging Roman emigration to their native North Africa.

Our liberalism has deranged our minds, and it is a little-appreciated truth that the deranged are easier to sucker than the sane.

We should pay no more attention to the latest terror hit than to a grisly traffic accident. We should leave the minimum of flowers at the scene. The outpourings of grief should be kept decently private. We should never ever publicly announce what we are going to do in reply. Let our high-strung enemy discover what we have done, after the fact.