Essays in Idleness


Tempora mutantur

“The times, they are a-changin” was among the governing slogans of my boomer generation, when we were younger and friskier, though now that they have changed, we do not dwell on it. We look back, in my case over seven decades of dubious and often painful alterations, and realize that although things may have changed, profusely, the assumption that we would have something to do with it had been unsound.

Nevertheless, it is not true that one man does not have the ability to change the world. Consider Lenin, Hitler, Pol Pot. Had each of them never been born, a lot of others might not have perished so abruptly, and the timeline of history might have, comparatively, lacked variation; though we keep the counterfactual argument in reserve. What else might of, would have, had to happen? Any of those gentlemen could have been knocked out by a childhood disease but then, perhaps, even greater monsters were naturally annihilated, instead.

“Be careful what you wish for” is another epigraph, tried and true, but as we cannot actually know what we have wished for, we are unable to be careful enough.

By many public commentators I have been informed, recently, that the times are changing again. “Woke” is going out of style, I am told, and “DEI” is dying. The scandal is that we have lived in an age when such idiocies have thriven. But we will always live in such an age, and in consequence, the times will always be changing.

Arctic farming

Apparently, I am not the first to notice that a substantial portion of the state in which I am a national (“Canada”) is uninhabited. I think the last person to notice was the late John George Diefenbaker, a politician who pursued a “northern vision.” Visions seldom outlast the sunrise, but as well, Dief-the-Chief was a self-confessed Tory, therefore quickly run out of office by the Grit voting machine. (It did not flourish on smearing and lies to the extent that it does today, but even in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, that was the essence of the Liberal Party.)

The Arctic, by which I refer to all those latitudes above 60 degrees North, is prevented from inhabitation and economic growth by government edicts. It is almost entirely “federal” land, on which any sort of investment, except large socialist-capitalist megaprojects with substantial political kickbacks, is legally unwelcome. The people who live there, despite the cold, owe their existence to government subsidy.

Sometimes, supposing the will, I have imagined how it would be done. How would we make Canada “north of 60” a magnet for immigration? Successful political reform will require violence, or an election like the one they had in Argentina recently, in which the immutable élite is exterminated in a scrupulously vegetarian way. But then what?

My own vision involves glasshouses. Under the sun of the arctic summer, a tremendous amount of growth could occur, of vegetables and the like. (Even salads — lordy, lordy.) By design, these glasshouses would float upon the permafrost, while being anchored by geothermal pipes. Once passive solar energy was lost to the long, dark season, micro-aggressive solar panels would continue to shine light on the winter seedbeds. Persons and livestock might also benefit from geothermal warmth.

The whole strategy would be clinched by allowing people to own things, and to trade, without the intervention of “planners” and environmental bureaux. Further encouragement could come with a universal tax break for the North, to be gradually extended through the rest of the Dominion.

Too much college

Stephen Leacock has receded from the literary history of Canada and the world, though like Chesterton, he retains many readers. He might have retained more, I venture, had he been more brutal in satirizing contemporary stupidities; but he was determined to be gentle. He thought that was the rôle of the humourist, and he assumed the rôle, from a native capacity for wit and drollery; and perhaps paradoxically, from courage. He knew that it takes more courage to state a platitude, than to invent a paradox (and less to utter a blasphemy, than defend a truth), and so he deviated just for fun. Too, he was by training an economist; where’s the fun in that?

I’ve been reading Leacock’s more serious popular books (he wrote some real drudge for the classroom), which I find more entertaining than his less serious books, produced every year at Christmas. Towards my age, he wrote Too Much College. He says what might as well be repeated today, and again be ignored. He looks back over many decades of college lecturing, after several decades of formal schooling, and many centuries of formal higher education since the Middle Ages.

We have, Leacock gently hints, created a mostly useless, but partly counter-productive, enforced educational bureaucracy, proceeding at the speed of the slowest pupil, year by tedious year. The idea that “college” is an appropriate place to study any of the number of things, that need doing before studying then doing again just after, is exhibited as farce; but also the sedentary topics are extended until, by the time the student has obtained a marketable degree, he is approaching retirement.

Education has been eating up life. The book appeared in 1939, even before the post-War inflation of “educational privilege,” but already the institutions of learning had swelled immoderately. They offered a service that “gentleman don’t need, and the poor cannot afford.” Their best, most splendid graduates are taught to speak subjunctively.

Leacock describes the evangelization of his own discipline, when it spread beyond the Manchester School to the East India Company’s school at Haileybury. “Their cadets were supposed to need it, and work it on the Hindu. The first lecturer was Malthus, the apostle of the empty cradle; but he had a hare-lip; the students couldn’t understand him; so no harm was done.” But by now, we have conferred degrees even on “masters of business administration.”

The moral damage rapidly spread from an essentially Malthusian, hare-lipped approach to reality, to the patient procedural destruction of our youth, as they are taught to think that they know something. Alas, the dear children.


I celebrate, for instance, the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, pseudonym Lenin, the day after the event, rather than on the day itself. This has nothing to do with the old Julian calendar, which was formerly observed in Russia. (It has now been almost universally replaced by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582, which has made New Year’s since the most explicitly Catholic festival.) Rather, my celebration is of the fact that Lenin’s anniversary is over, and all anticipation of it can end.

Lenin, and his archetypal successor, Stalin, were among the greatest monsters in human history — with far more victims than Hitler, but less than Mao. Those who embrace Communism, to this day, must explain the accumulation of tens of millions of corpses, in exchange for nothing gained.

Does God have a plan to save murderers like these? It would have to be “secret,” for it is not mentioned in any document He inspired. God, I should think, does not do “secrets” like that. But, perhaps theology is as far above my head as it is over “Tucho” Fernández’s.


More than half-a-century has passed since my most memorable disappointment, which involved horses. At the age of fifteen I had fallen in love, at first sight, and decided — spontaneously but irrevocably — that I must pursue her. But she, who did not at first seem to prefer another boy to me, did, apparently, prefer horses. I could pretend to like them, but not to the same degree. Consider: as a child of seven, I had had the experience of being thrown by a horse, into some nasty thorn-bushes. This horse was not opposed in principle to taking a rider, I was assured; only to carrying me. Though my goodwill continued, I became permanently sceptical of horses.

My disappointment was when another young man, with excessive charm, unnecessarily handsome, dangerously smart, fibrously athletic, and from a wealthy family, invited the uncommonly beautiful Sylvia to a dance. He was also, for his age, an accomplished equestrian. The tragedy of this affected me deeply.

I have gradually overcome my acquired prejudice against the equidae, however.

The question of whether horses, too, have emotions, has been subject to debate since the time of Albertus Magnus, at least. He believed they had none. Most girls, I think, would disagree with him; among the boys, only the “scientific” types would be strongly opposed to anthropomorphizing. Christians might be mildly opposed; but tend to agree that even fish can suffer. (It is the ability to articulate suffering that they lack.)

The sage of Cologne — the great Albert — did not ride on horses, ever. As many of the Dominicans of his generation, he disapproved of the blazing hotshots on their saddles, and though he travelled afar, he made a point of doing so on foot. This wasn’t to spare the horses’ feelings. He just wasn’t a hotshot.

In my own view (“settled science”), the cowboys who ride should endure our displeasure, when they stray beyond the ranch.

The philosophical man is peripatetic. He proceeds at the natural walking pace for animals of his kind. When transported faster, he will likely expire.

Tectonic reflexions

The re-awakening fault along the mid-Atlantic ridge under Iceland, after some centuries of dormancy, should remind “environmentalists” and the other smuglies that, even if there is No God, He still controls our material environment — to say nothing of the spiritual. The upheaval on the Reykjanes Peninsula does not proceed on any earthly schedule, detectable by our geological scientists. We are just as much at a loss, listening to their account, as we were when listening to Dr Fauci about the Batflu.

Similarly along the Noto Peninsula, in Japan: where the New Year’s earthquake caused landslides while rearranging the landscape, extending the coast by hundreds of yards out to sea; people and their equipage were washed away. Impressive aftershocks have restricted relief efforts.

Neither was among the more memorable subduction earthquakes, above, say, magnitude 9. But the history has only been recorded on our clever instruments since the end of the XIXth century. And because the shaking can be “improved” by countryside and urban conditions, the casualties do not accord with the Richter numbers.

“Megathrust earthquakes” occur generally undersea, where they generate very high and continuous tsunami waves. Quite apart from extending or reducing a coastline, these also accentuate ocean trenches, and build mountains on their forward side. A quick glance at the Himalayas reveals the scale that is possible, and may suggest the question, Who needs asteroids?

Though we happily waste trillions of dollars and euros and yuan on our extravagant government schemes, to make the earth more suitable for robot inhabitation, all may be rendered pointless in a moment. That is because it was pointless to begin.

Primum non nocere

One of the principles which the craftsman learns, when he is developing the skills of a book-restorer, resembles the primary principle in (legitimate) medicine. “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm,” says the oath in Greek in my Loeb Classical Library edition, usually translated from Latin as “first do no harm.” This is attributed to the sage, Hippocrates. A careful reader of the entire oath will realize that the doctor who performs an abortion, or a mercy killing, deserves very grave punishment; but also a doctor who counsels the same. Of course, ethical standards are not what they once were.

In book repair, one is instructed not to do what was done to many older works I have seen in both public and private libraries. The book has been trimmed or mechanically cross-bound or otherwise desecrated, usually by a well-intended moron. No subsequent book-binder would be able to undo the befoulment.

By comparison, the affixing of a paper cover around contents that remain intact, while it may look flimsy, is not a criminal act. When the book’s owner becomes a little richer, or sells to someone who is, fuller decorative justice can be done. But that competent craftsman must also provide that stitched gatherings be resewn properly, that the book will open flat on a table, that endpapers have not been glued irresponsibly, covering vital clues to the book’s provenance. A book plate or other alteration must not be added, that cannot be removed cleanly by a later hand: or the earlier book-binder is guilty of vandalism.

While it is not customary for book dealers to invoke Apollo, Asclepius, Panacea, or other gods and goddesses, they should nevertheless be aware that angels are watching, and as my father used frequently to remind me: “Le bon Dieu est dans le détail.”

I should wish that this moral principle, of taking care, were extended to all of our creative tasks, and to the repair even of our inferior creations. I consider it to be the primary conservative principle. The designers of office towers, apartment blocks, vile sprawling subdivisions — and the landscape litter of solar panels and electric windmills — should give more thought to how these things will be removed, when a higher civilization comes along.

Laser guns

“Star wars” was a primitive misnomer for President Reagan’s high-tech war strategy. One thinks of the succession of great American peacemakers: Nixon, Reagan, Trump. All of them turned their physical attention upward. For the war that Reagan contemplated, and thus wanted to provide against, was entirely sublunary. Verily, all our wars — and we cannot prevent all of them — have been, are, and will be sublunary in the foreseeable future. This is because our one superlunary opponent does not use material weapons. (Perhaps that is why peaceniks tend to identify with him.)

I have been quietly pleased, or rather gleeful, at the technological developments in this line. This includes Israel’s high-energy laser weapons system, made by Messrs Rafael. It replaces the hideously expensive though effective “Iron Dome” system, which was intercepting thousands of cheap, poorly aimed missiles sent by Hamas and Hezbollah. (Many continue to score own-goals.) These lasers can destroy any of the incoming at a price below that of a picnic (with wine) on the Gaza beach.

The Ukrainians could have fun with this, not only pinging Russian missiles out of the sky, but trying it out on supersonic aeroplanes. Indeed, all NATO should get in the game.

And now the Japanese have come up with something better, and smaller, as they are wont to do. It is a ground-based laser system that can vaporize small items of space junk (which, unlike things like “junk DNA,” is genuinely worthless) — being able to locate it from far below. Another clever Japanese company has designed a satellite whose lasers can redirect larger objects, causing them to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up. They look to launchpads in beloved Australia.

This is marvellous, and I am so happy that the Japanese have migrated to our side, against the Chinese Communists. I’m not as well acquainted as I might be with the latest American and West European advances, not to mention the Indian and South Korean essays, but already I look forward to much cheaper wars, when the hardware of mass destruction has been obviated.

Democracy leads to Hell

One of my Ottawa Correspondents (I have so many, I have almost run out of fingers on my left hand) reminds us this morning that:

“Sin is the most democratic activity in the world. Anyone can do it without any training or any accomplice, in public or in private.”

I used to write the “Sunday Spectator” in some atrocious Ottawa rag, from which this correspondent has also been retired. Jim is more succinct. …

It’s fun to tell the truth, as a private face in public places. … But we can’t really expect to be paid for it.

Father Boyd

The death this week of Father Ian Boyd (C.S.B., S.T.B, Ph.D., &c), at the age of eighty-eight — when people are expected to die (unless they die before, or after) — came nevertheless as a surprise. I had naively thought him one of the immortals, but in a too biological sense.

I first became aware of Fr Boyd about forty years ago, when reading the Chesterton Review, which he founded. He was an “academic” in Thomas More College, Saskatoon. At the time I was editor (and founder) of The Idler in Toronto, and apparently both publications were candidates for Canada Council grants, along with (precisely) 97 other literary, or literary “artsy,” magazines in the Howling North. We were the only two to be “declined,” perhaps because we were the only two with literary standards, or perhaps we were both dismissed as rightwing. You see, G. K. Chesterton was Catholic, and though only some of my contributors were, none of them were also contributors to the Liberal Party.

This was not a big disappointment, however. The Idler capitalized with a house ad that declared, “Subscribe to the 98th best literary magazine in Canada!” which won innumerable subscriptions, and the Chesterton Review was published out west where they really, really hate Liberals, so we both did well.

Later I came to actually know Father Boyd, and found him an uncommon Basilian. Though educated at St Michael’s College and Aberdeen, he had retained Christian beliefs, and was a remarkably entertaining authority not only on Chesterton, but I soon found, on Hilaire Belloc, Charles Peguy, Paul Claudel, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor and the legion of fine modern reactionaries; as well as Dickens, Trollope, and many other dead white males. He was that astounding thing, a genuinely learned “English perfesser,” and a very lively (though polite) controversialist in his own right.

His success in teaching was a priestly accomplishment. He cared, sincerely, for the souls of the little people that he taught, and would go to extraordinary lengths to stock their young minds with admirable content.

He also did miracles. When I decided to convert to Catholicism myself, partly on his example, no one knew except maybe John Muggeridge and my (appalled) mother. Father Boyd was minding someone else’s parish for him in the dark recesses of British Columbia, at a distance of 2,700 statute miles. So how did he instantly find out?

I was informed that he had said a Mass for my intention, before I had fully formed it myself; and during a drive across the continent shortly after, he called on me, so we could attend Mass together. He also gave me a copy of This Tremendous Lover, by the eminent Cistercian, Eugene Boylan (1947), which was almost excruciatingly apt.

Then he went to Seton Hall, where both he and the Chesterton Review found welcome, and now to Heaven, where he may expect the greatest welcome of all. However, I will miss him.


When I was a very young man, travelling in Israel, and first visiting the old Jewish quarter in east Jerusalem, I learned what Warren Goldstein (chief rabbi of South Africa’s orthodox Jews) is now firmly but patiently explaining. He addresses a world that contains the United Nations, and the International Court of Justice. Both are controlled by evil regimes which constitute a majority of the U.N.’s voting members, yet are supported by a deafening blather of false and flatulent “idealism.”

Jerusalem may actually be the ideal place to submit to the indoctrination of the Talmud. Then (early ‘seventies) and there, I came to appreciate the struggle of little Israel to survive, surrounded by implacably violent foes on every side. Her civilization, as civilizations everywhere, stands on three pillars: on justice (tzadik), truth (emet), and peace (shalom), in that order. Each is impossible without the pillar that stands before, yet each is sustained by the one that comes after.

For without justice, we can find no truth, and without truth, there can be no peace. This reality has been inversely demonstrated too many times in the United Nations, by peace plans that are unjust and untruthful; and by a vicious prejudice against Israel and the Jews. The world’s only Jewish state (there are dozens Muslim) has been condemned in U.N. resolutions more times than all the other countries, put together.

A first step towards the establishment of justice, and the civilization that might follow from that, would be for aspiring civilized countries to abandon participation in the U.N. and I.C.J. They should do what is in their power to demolish, and then to replace, these institutions.

There is a risk that, in a feverish property market, the General Assembly will be made into high-rise condominiums, rather than cleared for a park, or the grounds salted. The art collections might be preserved, however — even the heavier items like the stained glass by Marc Chagall, or the “Bugs Bunny” mural by Fernand Léger.

Ignominious scandal

In the time since Nathaniel Hawthorne, the amount of scandal offered in our American society has continued to rise, so to say, scandalously. Hawthorne himself kicked off a delightful scandal with a memoir of his “Custom-house” experience, that ended with his firing, and served as preface to his remarkable romance of repentance and dignity (or “Able-ism”), The Scarlet Letter. It retells events from the “witching time,” when Puritan America was inventing itself.

Witches were the original scandal. Women who were old and ugly were exposed by young, attractive girls (as they continue to be today). Mr Hawthorne’s long novella improves on the plausibility of persecution, by its extension to adulterers. By the political era of the “Custom-house,” there were many different forms of the New England ideal, in which witches (which witches?) were sought. Hawthorne, with his gentle humour, his light poetical musicality, and his literary Anglophilia, was naturally on the other side. After all, the melodious Chaucer had been able to work in a customs department without memorable scandal; but that was in an age before Whigs.

The history of Protestantism, in Europe as in white America, begins with witchcraft trials, and executions, but later it settles until these events can be falsely attributed to the Middle Ages. On the contrary, sensible mediaeval men sent only heretics to the stake. (One might praise them for their “enlightenment.”) Witches belong to another religion, which may or may not be considered a heresy, as Islam has been. But the scandal of custom agents is with us still, and will not go away, so long as we have taxes.

Today, we live in a golden age of scandal. The progressive Left, as it calls itself, can be scandalized by the most innocent things, such as off-colour jokes and male swagger. But it is fun to scandalize them, and play their tricks in reverse, e.g. by firing someone simply for being black and a woman; … and incompetent, of course, but that is hardly grounds to remove a university administrator.


I thought that I spotted Zdena Salivarová on the street, recently, loitering by a bookstore barrow, as I might expect. Perhaps it was my imagination, or the effect of my “neurology,” for by the time I got there she had disappeared.

This woman is among my heroines. She did the typesetting for the Idler magazine, when it first started, and wrote the memorable novel, Honzlová (in Czech). It is a very warm book, about life in a cold war police state; translated as Summer in Prague, half a century ago. Zdena herself would now be ninety.

Another contributor to our magazine was Josef Škvorecký. He died, about that age, a dozen years ago. Mrs Salivarová, a singer and actress in the Czech land, was his young wife. They had been married for I don’t know how many centuries, before and after taking refuge in Cabbagetown (one of the provinces in Toronto). For some reason she hasn’t returned. I suppose it is harder to leave Cabbagetown, than Prague.

Reading Mr Škvorecký’s books, as an editor though illiterate in Czech, I noticed that each was dedicated by name to a different woman. Being a shallow person, I thought, “Typical Czech, playing the field.” This I believed so long as no one challenged it.

Škvorecký, author of the magnificent Engineer of Human Souls, wrote many delightful novels. It took me some time to discover the truth about him, however. You see, all of his books were dedicated to Zdena, but each under a different affectionate nickname.

A reader might form the wrong impression. He didn’t care.