Essays in Idleness


On incivility

Today would be the 104th anniversary of the death, by assassination, of the presumptive heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary. The archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his Czech wife, Sophie, were shot by a 19-year-old hothead, while stalled in traffic during a visit to Sarajevo. It was the second serious act of incivility towards them that morning. Another Bosnian fanatic had tossed a grenade at their car, earlier. It was moving then, however, and all those injured were in the car behind.

It is interesting to me, that in their last moments, only the archduke knew what was happening. His retinue were in confusion, at first thinking he had a nosebleed, perhaps, and that his wife was fainting at the sight of it. Franz Ferdinand’s last words were: “Dear Sophie, don’t die! Stay alive for our children.” She was a loyal wife but, having been shot in the stomach, found this instruction impossible to obey.

Let us not even try to review the awkward yet quick diplomatic Dance of Death that followed from this incident. Within a few weeks, all Europe was at war, and the issue with which it had started — the constitutional status of Bosnia-Herzegovina — was no longer on the front page. This year we have been celebrating, or rather ignoring, the centenary of the conclusion of that Great War, which stands as a bookmark in history, marking to my mind the beginning of the chapter on “Post-Modernity.”

Further incidents of incivility would follow, in which tens of millions would die. Again, I will not take the space for a statistical review. The post-modern, pseudo-scientific mind wants numbers, and eschews anecdotes. My old-fashioned mind prefers a story. For the last half-century I have been trying to understand what it is; and what lessons, if any, can be learnt from it.

I regret the loss, not only of Franz Ferdinand himself — an intriguing character, with some delicious prejudices which he was perhaps too candid in explaining — but of the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire in his small wake. It was the last multi-national realm united by the Catholic religion; sleepy and quiet for the most part. “Harmonious” might be going too far. The waves of what we could now call “identity politics” — essentially, godless ethnic and linguistic tribalism — were already crashing against it, from without and within. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, member of “Young Bosnia” and the “Black Hand,” was only one example of what this did to people. It made them discourteous and impolite; in a word, uncivil.

Whereas, civil-ization requires a certain calm, and a broader frame of mind. Energy, indeed, is required to uphold it; but energy requires discipline and restraint, if it is to be used to good ends. Rules, mostly unwritten and even unspoken, guide the civilized man through life; and behind those rules lie more rules, which account for the exceptions. Violence, shall we say, is to be generally discouraged, yet there are circumstances in which it is de rigueur, and non-violence would be barbaric.

Should we, for instance, stand for a national anthem? Though the opposite of a nationalist, I think, yes. This applies even to foreigners, and the rule I was taught is that on all public occasions in which God Save the Queen is played, all are to stand, “with the possible exception of bath-chair invalids.”

Should we tolerate those who, though apparently sound of limb, fail to stand? Of course not.

Post-modernity is taking a long time. To the category of ethnic and linguistic truculence, we have now added many others, increasingly batty. I won’t take the space to name them: they are listed in most current inventories of fanciful “human rights.” All serve as occasions for incivility.

Any one is as likely as not to trigger others. Prudence tells us not to get it started.

Be prepared

Remember, gentle reader, those “young Romans who lost the Empire of their forefathers by being wishy-washy slackers without any go or patriotism in them.”

I am quoting from that Edwardian classic, Scouting for Boys. One may still discern it on the distant horizon. The Boy Scouts were one of many young paramilitary organizations, that rose from the victorious ashes of the Boer War. There was the Boys’ Brigade, the Church Lads’ Brigade, the Kibbo Kift Kindred. There was even a National Peace Scouts movement, founded by some liberal as a reaction to all this campfire militarism. But General Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts, never intended to amount to more than the competition, spread quickly through the British Empire and beyond. Even in USA, the Boy Scouts supplanted such native organizations as the Woodcraft Indians, the Cos Club, the Sons of Daniel Boone. The Hero of Mafeking had the style and charisma. The uniforms were better, too; and the jingoism more polite and restrained. Boy Scouts were taught to be helpful to old ladies.

Grown Boy Scouts were among the first eager recruits for the Great War. More than a hundred thousand of them soon signed up, in 1914, and soon after, ten thousand of them were dead.

My parents signed me up — for the Boy Scouts — half a century later, and more than half a century ago. It cost them for the uniform and trinkets. A wishy-washy slacker by disposition, and never much of a team player, I wanted out the moment I was in. Perhaps I lasted eight weeks, through which I scrood up every assignment. I associate most of my early experience of regimented “physical education” with physical injuries, and without affection. A woolly empathizer, too, it is well that I have never been placed in command of soldiers.

But I am no pacifist, and will lead with my chin (or more precisely, my mouth) when faced with the feminized girly-boys, boys who want to be girls, boys who’ve made the transition, and actual girls who “criticize” the Boy Scouts today, yet weirdly demand to be admitted. It is a sign of the times. (Why not join the Girl Guides, and learn some “home economics”?)

The boy with enthusiasm for nature and outdoors will today, I suppose, do what I did. He will go hiking alone, with a field guide in his satchel and perhaps a pocket microscope; or opera glasses for the singing birds. He will fill his head with adventure stories, and imagine himself rafting down the Congo, or bagging Himalayan peaks. He may discover the use of a canoe. A close companion may tag along, perhaps. Boyless uncles will vie for his company on their own private fishing expeditions.

“Honour, duty, loyalty, self-control” — all good, if you ask my opinion. Too, I can see there is something attractive in drill and parades, though I would rather watch than march, or line-dance. After all, I still have those opera glasses. But my ideology was formed in “A Boy’s Song,” by the estimable James Hogg (1770–1835), which I was given to memorize at the age of six:

Where the pools are bright and deep,
Where the grey trout lies asleep,
Up the river and over the lea,
That’s the way for Billy and me …

Wars are necessary, and we should be prepared. But even after the next one starts, we should also be prepared for peace. Because it happens, you know, sometimes.

On not working

My hero Ivan Illich (the Cuernavaca leftist, not to be confused with some character in Tolstoy) wrote a lovely book in 1978 entitled, The Right to Useful Unemployment, with the stimulating subtitle, … and its professional enemies. It was one of his series of little bombshells aimed at technology, institutional liberalism, the education system, public medicine, power transmission, unions, certified professionalism, the legal trade, and so forth. He also shared my doubts about mass literacy and numeracy.

Very leftwing. All the smuglies used to adore him, because he spoke like one of theirs, but with a chic, whole-earth edge. I noticed, however, that what he said was opposed to everything they took for granted. He was not fighting to advance medicare, or judicare, or welfare, or any of the projects of what I call the Twisted Nanny State. Moreover, the “equality” he depicted turned out to be a radical endorsement of human freedom.

What would “useful unemployment” be? The perfect example is a housewife:

“An active woman who runs a house and brings up children and takes in those of others is distinguished from a woman who ‘works’, no matter how useless or damaging the product of this work might be.”

Illich shamelessly employs the non-statistical concept of “use values,” against our world of commodities and paycheques. He mischievously applies words like “poverty,” for instance, not to low incomes and backward living conditions but to an environment in which human autonomy is sacrificed for mediocre material ends. This goes somewhat beyond the distinction between socialism and capitalism. No effort is considered productive in our world, unless done at the behest of a boss.

Sometimes he was rude. I particularly enjoyed his characterization of the socialized medical establishment in Canada as the new hookers trying to take the trade away from the old hookers. Or snippets of economic analysis designed to drive economists crazy. Example: by the mid-1970s automobile manufacturers were paying more per unit for worker health, than for the metal in their cars. But their death rate was increasing, owing to traffic accidents.

Indeed, it was Illich who alerted me to the most interesting traffic statistic I have seen. It was a calculation of all the hours spent not only in making and driving cars, building highways, &c, but down the whole column of vertical integration to the metal-mining and oil-extraction at its base. Divide these total hours worked into total miles travelled, and it is discovered that the average speed of cars is about the same as walking. In the name of efficiency, the opposite was achieved.

Most technology is counter-productive like this: the more advanced, the worse it gets. Yet this is not the principal complaint. Rather it is the kind of society, and nature of human interaction within, that is at issue. Everything now requires regulation, and all functions must be professionalized. A centralized political regime inevitably follows. It instinctively resists and condemns any attempt to undermine itself by doing simple human things.

It is also the fortieth anniversary of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement speech, “A World Split Apart.” In retrospect, it went beyond the Cold War context in which it was delivered. Solzhenitsyn was identifying the “political correctness” that has been eating through our old civilizational values; starting with that of courage.

But more:

“Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness — in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during [recent] decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.”

From quite different angles, I think “leftwing” Illich and “rightwing” Solzhenitsyn identified a key modern “problemo.” It is that, progress doesn’t work.

Old engagements

Lost my Internet connexion just after accidentally uploading this. Now I have
it back, I have tried to fix the piece, for I was not finished with it.


I am in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, in June 1972. Well, really I am not, gentle reader. Rather I am glancing at a ragged old notebook, which I should have pitched decades ago. It has risen to the surface of a dry sea of papers, a raft of dust and nostalgia. Forty-six years have gone by! Who scribbled all this pretentious nonsense? Me, I’m afraid. My best excuse is that I was not quite twenty. (I don’t suppose that will work any more.)

A short plump Welshman is pacing his office, his hands as if tied behind his back. He is Derek Davies, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review — a weekly I once held in admiration; a constellation of brave dedicated underpaid journalists, of many nationalities; who had sometimes got the magazine banned, or themselves locked up, in the countries from which they were reporting, what they earnestly (and often wrongly) believed to be true. Decidedly the best newsmagazine in Asia; now long extinct. It was also a late relic of the colonial era, a creature not only of “old Asia hands,” but of Fabian aspirations descending from the London School of Economics. (Oh, gentle reader, the men who held dominion over palm and pine were progressive to the core.)

We were discussing contemporary journalism. Rather, Mr Davies was discussing this, as he paced; I was listening politely.

“I have grown very tired of journalisme engagé,” he asserted.

He was agreeing with something I had not quite said, about the tone and posturing I had witnessed among journalists in Vietnam, on a mission that had little to do with reporting. These were hacks indifferent to the truth, incurious about their sources, vain, self-serving, committed only to good salaries and scoring political points. Though I was very young, I was already jaded from having watched them concoct dramatic phantasies, in the hope these would pass for front page news, and win them Pulitzers. Yet few were as bad as their editors, back home, who added the finishing touches.

(I made an exception for the photographers, who risked their skins in the field. Often they were surprisingly rightwing. This was because they’d had the opportunity to stare Communism in the face, and understood what the Americans were fighting. Whereas the writers, romanticizing the Viet Cong, strayed seldom from the comforts of Saigon.)

Mr Davies knew all this. He told me several ear-curling stories, without mentioning his own correspondents. There were decent folk among journalists, to be sure, but the whole trade seemed to be falling into the hands of political operators. This is what made the “Feer” (as it was known) so necessary. It was trying to get some things right; trying to explain why things were the way they were. This made it more informative than, say, Time magazine, or Newsweek — as much “fake news” then as today, though in those days a little more sophisticated.

Not journalism, only journalisme engagé — Mr Davies said this could be the future. Though light by disposition (the author of such amusing “Traveller’s Tales”), for a moment he was dark. He described a spirit of malice; an overwhelmingly destructive attitude of mind; and deriving from that, a terrible, a purposeful blindness. The engaged journalist can no longer see what is right before his eyes. He makes no concession to realities. He is a political propagandist, for very dark causes. An apparatchik; a fifth columnist; an enemy of civilization, poisoning from within.

This is hyperbole, I thought. (For I was not quite twenty.) It can’t be that bad. Nor is it likely to get any worse.

But it was, and it did.

Television review

I never watch movies, so that when I do, they have a tremendous life-changing effect on me, that lasts for hours, even days. Similarly, I never watch television, so that when I did watch a programme last evening I was blown away. In fact, I do not own a TV, but when a trusted reader told me that I must watch something by the Communist Broadcasting Corporation (Canada’s taxpaid guvmint network) I found the Internet link.

They did something sorta neat: got a Canajan suburban family (with three teenaged kids) to live in the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, &c. Their house was stripped to the studs then authentically periodized for each decade in succession; meals, clothes, chores, &c, starting with war rations. The guineapig family were good sports, and did their best to adopt the mores and manners. They were also rather charming. Mommy bitches a bit about never having worked so hard (in real life, a nurse in our socialist medical system), but is diligent, and witty, and the rest of the family plays along, including girls knitting socks for our boys in Europe, needlework, &c. (The less cooperative, but still obedient older girl does a lovely handkerchief with the motto, “I hate needlework.”) Black-&-white footage is supplied to viewers for some background; and even when the household gets a TV (in 1959), it plays contemporary CBC shows.

Tupperware party; salads in jello.

In the ’forties episode, the family really got into the war effort, and decided to actually like short servings of “meatless pies,” and kidneys in flour sauce on toast. When we win (in 1945 segment) they decorate the house with bunting and our old Red Ensign flag, and look overjoyed. All seem to be coming round to the view that “things were better then,” though mommy still wishes she had her microwave, and didn’t have to grind the meat herself for shepherd’s pie, or look perfect and have tea ready when daddy comes home from work. Even so, she kinda likes looking perfect, getting respect, having her kids turn into responsible “young adults” before her very eyes, including her daughters pitching in for a change, and the family bonding over shared meals.

I will not watch the ’sixties episode.


On my other channel (here) gentle reader may find a very short essay on the very long, involved topic of “place.”

We get glimpses, sometimes, of some spatio-temporal “place,” some little corner of the universe where people are “at home” and things may be taken for granted that aren’t, on other planets. Moreover, there were once times when people lived in places, and there are remote locations where people still do. As I’ve tried to convey by the use of two terms, my definition of a “place” subtly varies from my definition of a “location,” such as one might find using GPS. Place implies neighbourhood and continuous history. It extends beyond family and provides the means by which an individual human is “socialized,” or as we used to say, “formed.”

Formation is a Catholic Thing, or more precisely a “traditionalist” Catholic idea, that like so many others was once generally understood. The alternative to a good formation is a bad formation; there can be no such thing as no formation at all, though in modern liberal thought an effort is made to pursue this “ideal,” working piecemeal on suggestions from the Father of Lies. The rude power of the state (including our nominally “private” megacorporations) is employed to destroy the sense of place, in every place, and thereby create a form of “New Soviet Man,” or Perfect Consumer, who will be not only “Equal” regardless of race creed and gender, but have attitudes free of prejudice, memory, knowledge, intelligence, or any inclination to resist the instructions of his computerized bureaucratic minders. All such “arbitrary” features as the place you came from will be ground into a grey soup in which the individual floats as a grey pea, subject to immolation if he shows signs of colour.

As I say, it is a large topic.

On counting neurons

Your mediaeval peasant had less on his mind, we are told. By comparison, our urban, post-modern savage has plenty. The amount of miscellaneous information being fed into one, from his hand-held device, during a typical trolley ride of twenty blocks, is astounding. Much is in the form of numbers. He might be hot, or cold, but until he has consulted the weather network he is afflicted by anxiety. He needs to know the current temperature, possibly the windspeed, humidity, and barometric pressure, but more likely he will settle for an expert opinion on what it “feels like.” Whereas, a mediaeval peasant would already know what it “feels like”: like Hell, riding this trolley.

I am cat-blogging today. This is because I have been shown, through the miracle of email, an article on the intelligence of dogs and cats. According to some murky source, dogs have more neurons than cats, and the conclusion is, that dogs are more intelligent.

Quel simplisme!

Any cat will tell you that a dog wastes his neurons, on idiocies such as trying to please humans, but I doubt the authors of this ridiculous study consulted one.

Are dogs more intelligent than trolley riders? The thought has occurred to me; I think it could be tested. But an intelligent dog will try to hide it. A dog will be told to “sit, sit,” and by his mysterious desire to please, will sit, for a moment. Yet having more self-knowledge than his master or mistress, he will soon stand up again. This is because a sitting dog in a crowded trolley gets his tail stood on. He wishes that he could explain this to his master, but one glance at the ring in the nose and he knows there is no point. Just smile, and endure. Life will be easier that way. It would be more fun with a pack of dogs, however.

There is no leashing a cat. The creatures have foresight, and know where this is going. I don’t know how many neurons it takes to have foresight, but a cat has enough. As the old saying goes, a dog has a master, but a cat has staff. He can’t even be bothered to count them.

A human analogy would be apt, here. Men have more neurons than women. This is as certain as dogs have more neurons than cats. But ask any woman. Indeed, for purposes of research I just asked one. I caught her, by electronic means, on the way to deliver a Latin tutorial:

“Perhaps there is more to the male/female thing than neurons. Perhaps there is a hormonal equivalent to the elusive Dark Matter of physics, or to the more elusive (if less likely) string theory.”

The white man’s burden

My title this morning may be misleading. But as ever, I leave gentle reader to judge.

It came from my days as the editor of a business magazine, in eastern Asia. I used it as a title once, over an article on the insurance industry, ghost-written by one of my staff, on behalf of an insurance maven who could not write to save his soul. The by-lined gentleman was in the habit of using this phrase — “the white man’s burden” — when speaking of the European re-insurance markets that took the beating, when fresh young Third World insurance companies made characteristically bad bets. Alas, he did not thank me for “billboarding” his little witticism.

The Wicked Paedia contends that insurance began with the Babylonians and ancient Chinese. But their argument is self-refuting. Babylonian merchants would pay an extra fee against a trade loan, to make the principal unrepayable if the shipment were lost. Fair enough, both parties knew what they were doing, and did their deal within sight of each other. The Chinese merchants had the wit to distribute big shipments among small vessels, to limit their losses should a vessel go down. This was a perfectly sensible tactic. So, arguably, were the arrangements of ancient Greek ship owners, who’d pool risks across a larger fleet.

But the idea of a specialized insurance syndicate is distinctly Western. As for the rest of modern banking and “capitalist” business practices, we must look back to the later Middle Ages, and the Italian city states (which the Dutch copied, much later). The Florentines invented double-entry bookkeeping, the Venetians new wrinkles in trade finance. The Genoese came up with the idea of the insurance contract, as a “thing.” God bless them for their cleverness, but damn them for the consequences.

In my unassailable view, typically rendered too subtly at the time, there was a deeper meaning to the phrase, not at all flattering to white people. We were, after all, the missionaries of insurance to places where it had not previously been considered. We were the innovative virtuosi in offloading individual exposure, through vast networks of unknowing gulls. In other words, we had become, from our Imperial days, the experts in covering for (our own) irresponsible behaviour. In time, we taught the whole world the principles of rapid economic growth, based on tricks of debt concealment, genteel privatization, compound leverage, and “limited liability,” fuelled by mercenary avarice.

The “burden” in question was on our own usurious souls. But that, too, was quickly spread about; for many found our sins to be attractive.

I have noticed over time that insurance executives (I’ve met a few, including one or two who were intelligent and candid) tend to be quite liberal in their political outlook — until it comes to actually paying out. Ditto all related risk-spreaders. They have, for centuries now, had the attitude enshrined in that “classic” of moral and intellectual depravity, Catcher in the Rye. It is to let people play like children, as a way of life, on the high and dangerous plateaux, while inserting some “catcher” into the game to prevent the least responsible from going over the cliff. The centuries pass. Today, instead of adults, we have Twisted Nanny State.

All insurance involves moral jeopardy. In guvmint it is taken to extremes that would quickly bankrupt any private insurer, but the jeopardy is there from the beginning, and pretending it isn’t involves lying to ourselves.

Gentle reader may not be surprised, to learn that I prefer the earlier mediaeval model, which was also that of the American pioneer. If someone has his assets blown away through ill-luck, and no fault of his own, we all pitch in to help him recover — on our own voluntary dime. If, however, it was his own darn fault, we split our sides laughing, then mock him as a warning to the young. We do not buy into crazy schemes to eliminate, or even to relax, personal responsibility. Instead we expect people to grow up.


A correspondent calls my attention to an episode of The Goon Show from 1957, entitled, “Insurance: The White Man’s Burden.” So that’s where Neville got it!

Sumer is icumen in

The climate here in Greater Parkdale, and Upper Canada beyond, is just as it has always been, for as long as I can remember — only more so. After a brutally cold winter, I see the weather girls (of all genders) are predicting temperatures in the next few days around one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and some serious humidity to go with that. How the polar bears will suffer!

And here in Inner Parkdale I expect my neighbours, only some of whom live in halfway houses for the criminally insane, will be manifesting signs of global warming.

Meanwhile the roof of the building that hosts the High Doganate (just above me as I write) is scheduled for replacement, beginning Monday. My superintendress suggests keeping all balcony doors and windows tight shut, as the summer proceeds, presumably to contain things falling from the ceiling. And we should shut off air conditioners, too, lest they become clogged with dust. (Luckily enough, I do not own one.)

I notice from an article in the Toronto Scar, that a problem with walking in the city parks and ravines is now publicly acknowledged. This is caused by redwing blackbirds, who resumed egg-laying recently, in honour of the spring. There is a population explosion of them, and they are extremely aggressive towards anyone who passes within fifty yards or so of any one of their innumerable nests. Brave, too, considering their size. I call them “hairdresser birds,” for the delight they take in rearranging the hair styles of passers by. I noticed in scanning 63 comments in local media that all were on the side of the birds, and inclined to condemn people like me for failing to avoid their quickly expanding breeding ranges. This would be a good example of Canadian environmentalism. My countrymen are trained from birth always to take the side of another species. (I missed this brainwashing, somehow.)

On the other hand, the raccoon population appears to be dwindling. It would seem that the skunks — model liberals in the way they conduct an argument — are driving them away. Coyotes, I am told, are increasing. These help reduce the cat and dog populations. But I’m rooting for the crows, hawks, shrikes, and owls. (They all eat redwing fledglings, and acquit themselves well against their parents, too.)

The geese and swans along the Lakefront are again acting unionized, this summer, having long nursed a powerful dislike for the city’s other inhabitants. They are large, and forceful in expressing their opinions. Ditto, the trolley drivers. And the schoolchildren are about to be released from their cages, in time for what is now called “Canada Day.” Monstrous little creatures in the main, especially after they have shot up their drugs. (The older-looking ones are their teachers.)

More backwardness

Consider, if thou wilt, gentle reader, Engelonde, in the century of Chaucer, which was also the century of Richard Rolle, Walter Hinton, and Julian of Norwich. (The 14th.)

There are two kinds of ignorance, superficially opposite, but closely related. In the first, more commonly recognized, we pretend to know something that we don’t know. In the second, we pretend not to know something that we do know. By waddling back and forth, as it were, a man may present himself as an expert in any subject. It is important for him to be quick about it. Add a pretty face, and he can go on television. Or, she, as the case may well be.

Poetical ignorance is of another kind, and I welcome and encourage it. It partakes of neither of these “scientific” errors. The poet does not pretend to know anything. Neither does he pretend not to know anything. He searches for the phrase that will negotiate between the Scylla and the Charybdis. This takes some awareness of where they are, on either side. There is some necessary irony in each of his assertions of fact, and any of his Socratic poses. He is slippery like that. He says things that surely cannot be disproven. (Or she, as in some cases.)

The beauty in mathematics is that you are right or you are wrong. The same may be said for some assertions in logic, and first philosophy. The beauty is that, so far as they are right, the assertions will prove practically useless. I love these disciplines because they demonstrate by contrast the messiness of our world, but too, because they hint at its underlying order. At their most useless, they approach the condition of poetry.

Technology, I would say, is a dead loss. It is neither philosophical nor poetical, and the adept of technology is just a tradesman of some sort. I don’t reject his humanity on that account, but in Upper Canada we had a long tradition of front and back doors. A tradesman may be welcome in your house, but he should come to the back door. This used to include doctors on house calls. But a poet or philosopher rings the bell on the front verandah.

If, however, like Father Spadaro, darling of Pope Francis and self-appointed sage at the Court of the Vatican, he says that, in theology, “Two and two can make five,” he should not be let in by either entrance. He said this last year and I am still annoyed. There is no universe in which two and two make five, and there can be no such universe. This is something we can know.

But let us consider another theological assertion, known to those who live the contemplative life. It is, “Nothing and nothing make nothing.”

I am thinking about this not because I am a contemplative myself — I am in that respect a mental defective — but because I find myself once again coming to terms with the (14th-century) Cloud of Unknowing, and other mystical tracts by what is almost certainly the same anonymous (and very learned) author.

The statement happens to be mathematically sound. Mediaeval writers could generally do their sums.

Suppose, now, that gentle reader will consider the contemplative act of dismissing from his mind everything he knows and does not know about the attributes of things. And suppose that he will also dismiss what he knows and does not know about the attributes of God, so that both become to him, in effect, a nothing. Of course, he can at best only do this for a moment in this earthly life; at some point he will have to resume eating and sleeping and watching out for unicorns.

But in that moment he will have come as close as he can get (in this life) to the union of that nothing with that nothing. He will be with the uncreated God.

Trying to see wholes

A reader with “conventional” foreign policy training writes that he has no clew what may come of the Kim-Trump meeting in Singapore. It could end quite badly, as we may reasonably foresee — worse than, say, a real estate deal that goes sour — but what would success look like? The “real” nukes are over the border in China; what do we face if the Chinese allow their North Korean wild card to be taken off the table? What might be their motives in disposing of it?

Will Japan and South Korea become estranged from the West, and Taiwan be lost, once the Politburo and its President-for-Life sacrifice their puppet bogeyman, and change the subject from this game of nuclear chicken to a new kind of trade war, and a more direct form of regional hegemony? Having used Kim Jong-un to compromise South Korea, and as a bargaining chip to effect American retreat from the region? What other sort of geostrategic trap might they be, consciously, leading the West into, the like of which our foreign policy experts, reared on the Cold War, are ill-equipped to see?

When Trump boasts that the economy of USA is still twice the size of PRC’s, his Chinese listeners must be smiling wryly. That is just the mistake that the Soviets made, and which they are not planning to repeat. By strict old-fashioned socialism, the Russians kept themselves poor. Reagan could bankrupt them simply by engaging in a serious arms race. Communist China is playing a longer game, to build a military superpower that will be much more sustainable, and an internal Gulag more comfortable for its inmates.

I try to think like a Talleyrand about such things, but then, I have met Talleyrand (in books), and I am no Talleyrand. What is for the best in a world of superpowers? What might actually save lives? He was, at heart, a friend to endangered men, and sometime traitor to his own state. From within the apparatus of power, he could see outside. He was more than a representative of French state interests: a mind looking to the good of all Europe. At our best, in the politics of the West, we have engendered such minds.

How do we protect, or even advance, our own interests, while mindful of interests beyond our realm? How do we reciprocally advance the interests of our own actual people (not “the peeple” of political ideologies) in the flickering light of those “ignorant armies clashing in the night”?

It is a long time since I was reading Talleyrand, and about him, but from those days I carried an impression of his intellectual chastity. By this I mean, his nearly “Taoist” ability to participate in events without being emotionally swallowed by them. His marvellous sense of humour was among his chief weapons, both in comprehending his enemies and in restraining himself. He had sight as clear as a man can have, who is up to his nose in the world’s charnel. His very survival through the French Revolution showed an almost superhuman wit and tactical charm. We need men, or even women like him, to advise our leaders and guide them through their own mad vanities.

With appropriate deference to the President of the Natted States Merica, we need men who can see beyond the economic questions. Money is power, and vice versa: we live in an age of money and power gone wilding. The masses are caught up in it, in their daily lives, and manipulated to exclusively material ends. The challenge of statesmanship in our times is to subvert this satanic machinery; yet to do so while maintaining public safety, against focused evils and real monsters, both foreign and domestic. This is not so easy a task as may appear.

I do think nuclear war is worth avoiding. But we must not be distracted by it from the more pressing concerns, of our Christian salvation.

The boat song

The Isle of Mingulay, in the southern Hebrides where the Reformation never reached, is uninhabited today; owned by the Scottish National Trust and “protected” from human rehabitation by stringent environmental laws. It is less than three square miles, and for its scale, mountainous and bare. Yet in the outset of the 20th century it still had a village on one side, and a hamlet on the other, and perhaps thirty crofts. There was a Catholic chapel, a house for the priest, a mill and various outbuildings — for sheep, cattle, pigs, ponies, poultry. There was wool-waulking and peat-cutting as a way of life. Seabirds and their eggs were a significant part of its economy. Fishing was the mainstay.

I mention the place only because its name came up in my Internet browsing this morning. My personal obsession with the Uists and “Bishop’s Isles” is typically North American, and multicultist: my mama’s people came ultimately from Adam, but by way of the Hebrides (North Uist).  My feet have never stood on Mingulay, and I should think never will. If they did they would be the feet of a tourist, indulging a romantic dream.

This isle was continuously inhabited for thousands of years. It had been Catholic for the previous thousand or more; pagan before, back to the stone age. The people spoke Gaelic and Gaelic alone. They were not communal by some government legislation, but so because they had always been. The whole village would participate in landing and launching boats from its sandy beach; bad weather could cut it off for weeks. Yet under normal conditions it was very much part of western Scotland: its herring and shellfish (often gloriously peat-smoked) sold in the market at Glasgow.

What happened? Why did they all leave? There was no catastrophe, no plague, worse than had visited through the centuries before. The young began to leave for wage-paying jobs, then the old lost their confidence. In the years just before the Great War, they all went off; gave up everything, including who they were.

I think of a rugby crowd I saw on video. Scotland were in the final moments of beating England, last February — the Scots’ brutal defence slicing down the English momentum as they tried to recover from an unlucky first half. And the fans, so many face-painted in the blue of the Saltire, seeing victory near, broke into song. Ten-thousands of them singing “Flouer o Scotland,” recalling the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but written a few decades ago. It is about men:

That focht an dee’d for
Yer wee bit Hill an Glen,
An stuid agin him,
Prood Edwart’s Airmie,
An sent him hamewart,
Tae think again. …

Now it is the anthem of the independence movement; a cheap piece of jingo to be sure, though I found myself singing along. And like that romantic twaddle, “The Mingulay Boat Song,” written a generation after the isle it celebrated had been abandoned. (The “flower of Scotland” is the thistle, by the way.)

I think too of the descendents of Mingulay, among that blue-painted crowd of conurbanized, post-modern savages, who buy packaged food in supermarkets, and live in rent-regulated flats, and have no notion, not only where they are going, but where they came from. Whose ancestors left the thatch to blow off their ancient stone blackhouses, for a vision of comfort and ease.

They have their reward, as Christ would tell them. They have their abortions, and their drug overdoses, their anxieties and night fears, now different in kind. They have crime their ancestors could never have imagined, behind their unlocked doors. Religion and family, hard work and permanent neighbours, are long behind them. It is true that we cannot go back. But it is also true that we will die out here.

Jack Straw

Since no one will read this, I might as well express myself plainly. Today’s Idlepost is about politics again — the international kind. I continue to be mildly curious about what is happening in our world, and amazed in my brief media perusals that no one is writing about it — with any sense of reality. Obsessed with small ideological points, like pebbles in the street, they do not notice what is falling on them. My comment applies to both Left and Right, for both have ideologues, but of course they are worse on the Left.

They want to take digs at Trump. I do, too, for I find him quite obnoxious sometimes, though not for the same reasons they do. For instance, I don’t mind his vulgarity so much, there are worse things in this world. Trump will be Trump, while he lives and breathes; get used to him. He is not conventional; his training was in the nasty trades of property and construction and hotel management. Say what you will about him, he is used to getting results from dark nefarious colleagues, by calling their bluffs. It turns out this has fitted him well for the job he has now, for Washington is a town that works on mafia-mob principles, and bluffing.

He just made an example of our Trudeau boy, for a purpose that ought to be obvious. It will be noted, I should think, on the other side of the world, where they don’t wear the “gliberal” blinkers. Kim Jong-un was meant to notice, along with the Chinese operators behind him. The Chinese, I should think, have been quickest off the mark, with the observation that “this guy means business.” And if you want to do some, you will have to be businesslike and stop mucking about.

Trump is such a mystery to the Jack Straws in the West (late mediaeval term for chests stuffed with hay), because he is so transparent. They’ve never dealt with a politician like that. From Canada’s CBC and other crap media up here it is evident that the Trudeau lad does not know what knocked his eyebrows off (see viral video). He was just doing a little tease for the cameras, and then this tweet-missile came down from Air Force One. The idea that, if he wanted to, Trump could destroy the Canadian economy, has not yet sunk in. With that, the curious idea that there could be consequences to seriously aggravating him. It isn’t something that occurred to them before, because they are used to mouthing off freely, against cowards too wussy to reply.

Natted States Merica is in a strong position on tariffs. They have a yuge domestic market, and while jobs would be lost in a trade war, jobs would also be created, and companies facing constriction would move to where their biggest market is. Angela Merkel, who is a reasonably adept politician, gets this well enough to mind what she is saying, and the Europeans generally are doing only token “retaliations” while their fairy dust clears. The little Trudeau fellow, threatening big retaliations that would play politics by explicitly targeting Red States, is not, shall we say, playing this wisely. (At the Quebec summit, he got played by both the Americans, and the Europeans: the latter set him up to be out-man on the limb.)

But none of his adversaries yet grasp the character of Trump himself. He is actually a capitalist: a “free-trader.” They have quietly built tariff dams against American exports, and Trump wants them busted. They think he just likes walls, but he doesn’t. He’ll use walls to defeat walls, but what he likes is highways and airports. It happens I don’t like such things, myself, but can at least see what he is doing: pushing actual free trade down foreign throats, and thus compelling them to replace big politics with big business. They worry they’ll get creamed by the American juggernaut, now fracking enough oil to fuel itself, and rightly so. But there’s a substantial price to dodge it, and none of them are willing to pay. Trump will make them. He probably can.

In the same way, Trump is willing to militarize the Korean peninsula, in order to demilitarize it; and surround Persia with enough reasons to actually take its nose out of its neighbours’ affairs. To caricature the man as a warmonger or protectionist is to get him backwards. He is pushing “America First” and trying to communicate that if we, for instance, want to put Canada First, he’ll deal. But he isn’t going to deal with what he might characterize as a bunch of wankers.


Sorry to hear that Charles Krauthammer is dying. I admired him as a political realist, which he has been to the best of his ability and knowledge. He was also (privately) a rather decent and kindly man. Hard-boiled (in public), but a genuine egg. There is a shortage of hack journalists like that, as I hinted above — those the hack politicos must read, in order to know what is going on; men who try to squint through their own illusions. I began to miss him from the moment he went silent, ten months ago.

Of sweet & sour

My hankerings for citrus run to grapefruit and lime, though I do not sneer at lemons. Nor would I discount oranges, though my favourites are the bitter “bigarades” (Seville), and I want the shredded peels to be seen in a marmalade. I should like to put a good word in for the Muslims in this connexion, who first bred the delicious hybrid of Citrus maxima and Citrus reticula in mediaeval Spain, though I’d say they were the frugal Scots of Aberdeen who put the offspring to best use. A salute, too, this morning, to the Hindoos, and their genius for pickling every available variety of citrus, starting with lime. Verily: lime on lime for some of these pickles. That is, slaked lime as a pickling agent for the merry green nimbu (the lime fruit).

Here in the far West our inclinations run more to candied peels, and I raise no objection. Sweet and sour can go deliciously together, and the inhabitants of the Subcontinent have long run the range to both extremes. I mentioned the beautiful coiled jalebi in my Thing column for today (see here); it takes a real man to handle the immoderate Bengali confections, which I take for the sweetest in the world.

As a young man I could gobble jalebi to make myself sick, and some of the old can still do it. I carry the most restorative memory of a visit to a Calcutta sweets stall, with an elderly intellectual of that city who had taken me under his wing. Of the joyful shine in his eyes as he led me to what he believed the sweet stall of stalls in the old “New Market” (that of Sir Stuart Hogg) — exquisite pastries prepared in the finest butter ghee, many decorated with gold and silver foils. Of the sharpness of his elbows as he poked for us a route through the crowd of rival customers. I, for all my youth, could not hope to keep up with him, but like a gull behind a trawler, could prosper in his wake.

Happiness, true material happiness and thanksgiving, is something wonderful to see. God bless the memory of Mr Ghosh, who has surely found the finest sweet shop in Heaven.

But as I hint in my morning Thing, there is also a spiritual dimension to life, which must not be omitted.


My Chief Texas Correspondent leaps naturally upon the result of yesterday’s Ontario provincial election, in which our governing Liberals were annihilated. He sees this as a conventional “shift to the Right,” in Merican party terms, and celebrates it as such.

To which I reply: that the moronic city voters went not Right but over to the NDPee, which promised more spending than even the Liberals could imagine, and various grand new welfare schemes. (They are a zoological garden of various activist nutjobs.) Our outgoing premier’s personal charmlessness factored into the result. The winning Doug Ford is a total clown, and the media will have him for breakfast and snacks, yet for one brief glorious moment the Leftoids are in disarray. Ford is no Trump, though he might be able to match your esteemed President in straightforward vulgarity. He cannot have the fondest clew what he will do with the mess he has inherited, now that he is in power. He will have to betray that half of his constituency to which he promised the opposite of what he pledged to the other half, with unstudied vagueness. His caucus will be crawling with Suburban Saracens and other multicultural eccentrics — not the old solid Tory phalanx of white, Presbo-Methodist, rural hicks. Alas, though the ride may be wild, it won’t be fun to watch.