Derek Chisholm

Let me suppose gentle reader has acquired the rudiments of calligraphy. He has experimented with pens and inks and papers — eager to practise, but pressed for time, like my friend Derek, even through the long years before he married, and became a father, in fairly old age. Then after that.

In the evenings, say, or very early in the mornings, or on holidays, he had a chance. This, because he was extremely well-organized. He had other time-consuming tasks, too, for instance being an active elder in his Presbyterian church (one of his degrees was in divinity), a quiet but very generous patron of arts, a culinary expert, a (very) long distance walker, teacher of a bewildering variety of university courses, book-buyer and broad reader in topics he didn’t even teach, a theoretical economist who was always controversial, and disconcertingly impossible to confute.

I should also mention the dayjob from which he recently retired: high up in the Ontario civil service. Political appointees regularly abused him, for he was there on merit and “track record” alone. He didn’t cultivate political connexions. He did work they couldn’t do and wouldn’t want to: keeping the pension fund afloat, seeing off men who would break the bank, saving credit ratings in New York, and the province itself from what looked like bankruptcy. “Never complain, never explain,” he explained.

Through this Derek Chisholm (born 1948, died on Monday) I got the faintest glimpse of others like him, in key places within several government bureaucracies; honest and dedicated men, thanks to whom spendthrift politicians are guided and warned; or more frequently saved from the consequences of their (sometimes maliciously) stupid actions, through brilliant manoeuvres in the money markets. Without men like these, huge economies would come crashing down.

It was interesting that most if not all of these were serious Christians.

Calligraphy was just one of Derek’s hobbies. I saw one product of it in his study: binders and binders and thick binders in his elegant hand. He resolved to copy out the whole Bible, and make his own commentary upon it, between all the lines. It was a labour of seventeen years. It wasn’t for show, it was a spiritual exercise. It was a way to move himself, closer to God: a tireless contemplative effort.

I became Catholic in my fiftieth year, though I’d been leaning that way for decades. We wrangled sometimes, mostly about ecclesial history. Derek was one of several I’ve met whom I could call “mystically Calvinist.” Each was or is in life an artist of some kind: a poet, a musician, a painter, a metalsmith. Derek was an economist who understood his art in a religious way. As a young man, though acknowledged as very capable, he almost did not collect his principal degree. This was because his thesis was as far removed from Keynesian as he could travel. He challenged every cliché that had been used to slide Britain, Canada, and many other countries off the gold standard in the 1920s; and how the Depression had followed from them.

He believed God was behind the laws of supply and demand, and that they were written into nature as a gift. And he would say this to people quite bombastically unwilling to hear it. In the same study I saw a huge library of economic classics and studies; apparently all annotated.

But there were other rooms in his house, and these were filled with art and literature. I’d met him years before through a “secret society,” whose members were antiquarian booksellers and bookish lawyers: each an eccentric and Derek most of all. His hats were particularly memorable. His staccato laughter made one duck for cover.

He got people to do things. I seem to remember being put up to lecturing on Edmund Burke to a Korean audience. I was paid excessively: with a caricature of Burke by Derek’s wife, Ji Myoung, more acute than anything in my talk.

He spoke once to me in a very Caledonian way, about himself, as “a foetid person.” What an unusual word to apply to oneself! I couldn’t spot anything in him that was less than good and honourable.

Well, it is All Souls, and Derek Chisholm’s funeral was this morning.

Qui Lazarum resuscitasti a monumento foetidum …