Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

A bourgeois moralist

Contemporary book reviewers were often unkind to Charles Dickens. I am referring to the higher-browed Victorian periodicals, often unbearably pompous to the modern reader (though not, of course, to me). Rereading the Spectator’s review of Bleak House, I think they could have conceded more: that Dickens is a genius, and his novels are mesmerizing; that he silences his critics with magic sprawling art. His caricatures are unforgettable, and sometimes in the background of his plots there is a divine movement, rising independently of authorial intention.

But I agree on their main point: that Dickens is essentially mindless.

Consider Little Dorrit. It is apparent in the (often mawkish) scenes within the Marshalsea Prison (for debtors of the lower castes), where Dickens’s father was once an inmate. This was not a happy place, according to my historical information, but in son Charles’s treatment I detect an atmosphere that Solzhenitsyn would later capture, more purposefully, in the Gulag. The sense that, “We are rising,” floats in a ghostly way, through and above specific characters; who are only doing what they can to get by. In the worst sort of bureaucratic trap, constructed by a symbolic Circumlocution Office, the Marshalsea prisoners owe money, that they cannot possibly repay, because they have been gaoled. (This situation was revived by the feminists who rewrote Ontario family law in the 1990s.) And yet there is paradoxical hope.

Having no advantages of class, they would seem to have fallen to the cold cruel bottom of an unfeeling world. But they are free now. No one can do anything more to them; and the only way is up. These inmates are human, have committed no worse than petty crimes. They have no motive to envy one another. They make their prison into a neighbourhood. Friendless, except for each other, they’ll only ever get out by miracle — if some unlikely person on the outside suddenly pays their debts. Trust Dickens to contrive this happy escape.

By dei ex machina, the plot rumbles on. There’s good bits as he kills off his virtue-signallers in Italy, one by one. I discreetly cheer as each goes down.

Dickens plays his audience for laughs and tears. That’s what the reviewers condemned him for. He was, from beginning to end, a “popular” writer, though perhaps somewhat morbid at the last. He brilliantly engages the emotions of his reader, but goes almost out of his way not to engage their minds. Except that he trips into politics, often, and irresponsibly. For his politics are cheaply “good guys versus bad guys.”

He casts his victims, to win sympathy for them. Yes, crime produces victims. But Dickens leaves the deeper questions of “crime and punishment” alone.

All tabloid journalism is like this; and all our meejah at the present day. It is Dickensian (like our Christmases used to be). It is Church of Nice. While I must admit having myself fallen in love with little Amy Dorrit, born as she was in the Marshalsea (and thus, debtless, free to come and go), I resented the Dickensian manipulation. In the end I was glad to (mentally) dump her on Arthur Clennan. May they live happily ever after, on their unearned money.

Voting intentions

Arguably, the American people have a handle on this. Their strategy is to support Biden and the Democrats publicly, to save their jobs, discourage doxing, and avoid vicious attacks from “friends” on Facebook. Then come November, they vote for a Republican supermajority, including a Trump sweep of the Electoral College, and a GOP landslide in the House of Representatives. Thanks to the secret ballot, they can say they voted for Biden afterwards, if he is still alive. (Has anyone checked on the dear old guy in his basement?)

That Trump will lose badly will be obvious to everyone until the election results come in. The younger constituency has been thoroughly indoctrinated by the radicals who captured schools and universities, but will, as usual, rarely turn up to vote. There will be a huge volume of fraudulent mail-in ballots — nine-tenths of them Democrat — but the Natted States Postal Service will fail to deliver them on time. Desperate efforts by Antifa and BLM to keep the riots going will substantially reduce the urban leftie vote. The meltdown of the meejah talking heads, on the night of November 3rd, will be even more amusing than their meltdown in 2016. Many will succumb to the Covid virus, by morning.

Not to be political, because I never am — but I did have a long history of correctly guessing election results when I was myself practising the demonic art. (Journalism.) I was, for instance, a polite “never Trumper” even after I’d been deleted by my newspaper employers (who felt they didn’t need “token conservatives” any more). But I did think, against all the odds, that Trump would win. This was because I try not to let my own prejudices interfere with my observations. My reasoning was simple. There were lots of people who loved Trump, and very few who loved Hillary Clinton. Therefore, the latter would lose. (This also explains how I predicted Obama’s victories.)

I have, incidentally, no confidence in the scenario I sketched above — for the conditions are actually unprecedented. There are arguments to make on the other side. The meejah are distrusted by an overwhelming majority, but they are nevertheless effective. Most Americans have become like Canadians: entirely cut off from news, because the chief object of its providers is to suppress what they don’t like. The meejah culture is part of the Left culture; and the Internet censors will redouble their efforts to silence rightwing voices as the election approaches. There is also a history of successful demonization that has favoured the Left. Have they managed to demonize Trump, by constant repetition, to the “Two Minutes Hate” level? For all I know, the majority of Americans are now Batflu-masked zombies.

But one never meets a confessed Trump voter from ’16, who is not pathologically eager to do it again. Whereas, it is easy to meet “liberals” who have become “woke” in reverse. They are tired of being regulated by the self-appointed thought police. They don’t even suck up to Islamists any more. They have shockingly lost interest in Climate Change.

So what are the polls now saying? Nothing that could possibly interest an intelligent person.

Belloc Night

“Not all leftists are violent. Some are just harmlessly demented. … Not all deserve to hang. Some could get by with just a thrash or a whipping.”

I applaud this sentiment from one of my more liberal correspondents, in the British Isles. It is a reminder that some things ought to be tolerated, or at least not punished too severely. Though not to punish them at all, might be unconscionable.

As we approach Belloc Night (27th July in Sussex) — when grown men in the environs of King’s Land at Shipley, eat bread, pickles, and cheese, and recite verses from the Cautionary Tales to their children — we are reminded of his sesquicentennial. For on Monday he turns one hundred and fifty; having been dead for only sixty-seven of those years. Magnificent in feuds, excoriating of his contemporary blockheads, he was unlike them driven by his loves. And with a fidelity that brooked no retreat.

Remembered today by the devout as the irascible half of our prize debating team, they prefer Chesterton, who balanced on the angelic side. But Saint Michael is also an angel. They did a travelling show together, this “Chesterbelloc,” against G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells, prominent secularists of their day (and in person, blackguards). Today it would be YouTubed, and only 179 Catholics would watch; but in its time it attracted large and lively audiences. All four were masters of the English language. Today, the illiterates may sue you even for using the word, “masters.”

Biographies may be read by the enlightened skinhead, Joseph Pearce, the despicable A. N. Wilson, and the beloved James Schall. But what we need most is to return to Belloc’s own works of history; his wanders in both space and time. They are never shallow. That he is sneered at by the perfessional historians, is what he might have expected, for his comprehension of these “other worlds” defies the anachronism in which most contemporary histories are grounded. He can understand the motives of generations long past, and of their great men, including the blackguards. And while, to our narrowness, he is politically incorrect, it is because he loves, and therefore hates error.

It was Belloc who explained, to the uncomprehending world of more than a century ago, when Imperialism was still working, that the Muslims weren’t dead yet; that we had failed to box them in the Crusades, and the warmth of their faith in Allah could still triumph over our tepid faith in Christ. By being far behind his own times, he remains well ahead of ours. The Church he loved most of all, but with a love consistently unblinkered; the Reformation he hated most, but with a roaring affection for all English things, such as only a man could feel who was half-French, and really pan-European.

Poor, he had all his life to work for a living, so when asked why he wrote so much he replied, “Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar.”

A poet in his grasp of smallest detail, he winks at the reader in the midst of his storms. But he is no storm-trooper. He reserves his strongest blows for the censorious. A man of extraordinary stamina, until finally cut down into a nursing home, he walked everywhere, when not sailing in a yacht, and with his own eyes saw the indefatigable beauty amid all the world’s sorrows.

Often people who stand their ground, get away with it. This is one of those little-known facts. Yet we have martyrs enough to demonstrate that “standing tall” does not assure biological survival. We must fight for our beliefs in the fullest range of ways, and take our lumps as they come to us.

In our present Culture War, we must stand with Belloc. Let us see what we can get away with, until we can’t any more.

V for Victory

One of the more hopeful developments in this Batflu Year, has been the closing of North America’s schools and universities. While these have stayed open, or are now reopening in the rest of the world, with the blessings of those medical experts who are moved by evidence-based research, those in “progressive” jurisdictions across this continent promise to stay closed. There is actually no health issue, except for those teachers who are very old, or have mortal physical conditions. (Keep them quarantined.) The danger from infections, for the young and robust, is approximately nil. But here we have a huge political issue, joined by the vast, overpaid teachers’ unions. Parents are everywhere in two minds. They want to return to normal, but have been terrified by media reports that are intentionally misleading, when not openly false. For the meejah are another part of the Left “core constituency.”

Whereas, I am not. Yet I regret the absence of both imagination and spine, on my own side. For instance: we should be seizing this opportunity to put the nanny-state school systems entirely out of business.

Let the parents continue “homeschooling” their children. Let those of university age starve, or find jobs. Let everyone who wishes, continue to enjoy their holiday from reality, until the money runs out. Let federal governments give up trying to argue with provincial and state “education” departments. But let them also withdraw their catastrophically wasteful subsidies. The ambition should be to let the (darn) systems collapse — parent by parent, then school by school.

Instead, focus on championing the “charter schools” movement. The basic idea is to redirect spending from the foetid “education” bureaucracies, to parents in the form of school vouchers. Let the parents decide how these should be spent — on the existing public schools if they want, or if they know better, on better.

Should gentle reader be data-driven, I recommend Thomas Sowell’s latest book, The Charter Schools and their Enemies. Existing charter schools routinely deliver dramatically better results for their students, at significantly lower per-pupil costs. (About half of present spending is sunk into useless “administration.”) Minority students score decisively better in charter schools, than the white monied do in the nanny-state systems, however this is measured. But independent schools are hated by the Left, because they threaten its arbitrary power. More deeply, the Left depends on an idiotized citizenry, that can be easily manipulated to vote against its own interests. Were young people coming up, capable of thinking for themselves, the Left would be doomed.

Hence, there is a big fight, already. This is one front in the current Culture War, but probably the most critical one. Wars must be won, and can be. As we used to say in Canada, when sending our troops to defeat the original Fascists and Nazis in Europe: “No price too high.”

We need a new, “take no prisoners” attitude from the Right, to replace jowls and rumbling bowels. The enemies of civilization must be faced down, even while it looks like we are losing. But we have hardly begun. Take heart against an enemy that must be utterly destroyed.

____________

PONZU. Today is a memorable Friday, up here in the High Doganate. For long I have been assembling salmon sandwiches, for Friday lunch. My mommy taught me to make these with red sockeye salmon from a tin. (The “pink” stuff is rubbish.) Hellmann’s mayo, blackpepper, a squirt of lemon, and a dash of curry powder, all mooshed together into pulp. On white Wonder bread, or equivalent. But today I have discovered the ingenious effect of Japanese ponzu shoyu. It is an intensely limed soy sauce. A dribble of that, instead of the lemon, and one’s sandwich is raised to the sublime. I was already grinding my curry powder in an ingenious Japanese mill (which reduces coriander- and cumin-seed to a powder in just a few hand rotations). And they share my love for fish. So God bless the Japanese, our allies against the Chinese Communists.

Entitlement

Two elements go into the making of a modern book: a Title, and a Text. I used to think an author should spend about equal time on each of these elements. If the Text took a year to compose, then he should take twelve months more on the Title. If it took five years, he will need the rest of the decade. But now I think the “filler” is much less important. Not even the book reviewers care.

Depending on the Title, the book should weigh either more or less. Note: using large type is cheating. Everyone will see through that device, by opening the book only once. A truly heavy book will have smaller type, and lots of footnotes set even smaller. This doesn’t necessarily cost more time to write, however. A capable and efficient academic hack should be able to turn out twelve pages a day; and hire a teaching assistant to generate the footnotes.

Gentle reader may object that other elements ought to be considered. The painter Degas complained that he was full of ideas, but couldn’t write a thing. The poet Mallarmé replied, helpfully, that, “Poems are not made out of ideas. They are made out of words.” The same goes for literature of any other sort.

Sub-titles are a distraction. Academics are addicted to them. They stray upon a good Title (rarely), then ruin it with a feigning discursion. They should bury all such posturing in the copy-text itself, where it will be safe from a reader’s eyes. Too, mind that the chapter-headings aren’t pretentious: some readers may examine the Table of Contents. Save the posturing for just the one big hit.

A wise author (I’m only naming Frenchmen today), once advised his fellows to write magazine articles if they were “full of ideas.” Some range may be permitted in the glossier periodicals. But a book must be a narrow thing. Choose your spike and pound it again and again, at least through the Preface, in case anyone reads that.

Over the years, buying books at second-hand, I have had to endure underlining and marginalia. But these invariably stop by page seven; and usually after page three — unless the book has an Index. Then all bets are off. Readers may go hunting for references to other books they haven’t read. Famous people will scour for their own names. There could be hell to pay, when they find them. Or worse, if they don’t.

This is why copy-text is such a thorn in the side of an author. Having ghost-written half-a-dozen books myself, for people who could barely type, I know what a nuisance filling pages can be. If your income is so low that you must take such commissions, always insist on a nickel a word. A dime if you can get it.

My remarks above were occasioned by the latest visitor to the High Doganate. Noticing my library, he asked the perennial question: “Have you read all these books?” I try to answer this question facetiously, but in a different way, each time it is asked — blaming my tastes on an interior decorator, or whatever comes to mind.

“No,” I replied yesterday. “But I have read all the titles.”

Urban elevations

When I first set eyes upon the statue in the centre of Piccadilly Circus — in London, as a little kid — I thought it must be the god, Mercury, a favourite of mine at the time. I was an inattentive child. I had neglected to mentally process his bow. Perhaps I failed to discern what it was. I thought he might be returning a crooked walking stick that some old man had mislaid.

That the figure was nude, didn’t surprise me. I come from an artsy family. Neither did the helmet he seemed to be wearing. Artsy people are partial to weird hats. That the figure was butterfly-winged, and fluttering above a public fountain, also made sense. In my childhood there were “fairies” under every bed. What to make of the bronze fish, cavorting in the fountain?

But to make a long story Idlepost short, by my second visit to Piccadilly Circus, I knew the presiding figure wasn’t Mercury. Imagine my disappointment when I looked it up.

Londoners typically think the statue depicts Eros, but it doesn’t. It was meant to be his brother, Anteros, the god of requited, safely married love. Its appearance as the dot at the head of Shaftesbury Avenue is an important clue. It was London’s “love returned” to Anthony Ashley Cooper — the seventh Lord Shaftesbury. He was among history’s most renowned philanthropists, and a great friend to London’s lunatics and paupers. He was also a raging Tory, of course — like all good rich people — and an immovable supporter of the Duke of Wellington, the last British prime minister to be uncontaminated by liberal ideas. (Defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, &c. Driven from office twice.) Some day I will go on and on about my adoration for the “Iron Duke” — so named for the iron shutters he had installed on Apsley House, so he could get on with his evenings while the commie rabble were hurling rocks at his windows.

Now, on the point about family values, Shaftesbury bitterly detested both of his parents. His wife Emily was thought to be the “natural daughter” of Lord Palmerston, if you get my drift. But they did produce ten legitimate children, and according to my source, he could remember all their names. He was a bit of an Evangelical nutjob, according to me; arguably the next best thing to a Dark Ages Catholic. Somewhat prim, at times. He was never a nudist.

Most philanthropists do more harm than good. This is an insight that comes with age. But some are heroic, and do genuinely useful things. Shaftesbury was cut from the same cloth as William Wilberforce, the great spoiler of the Atlantic slave trade. One might call Shaftesbury the complementary enemy of “blackface”: for he freed the chimney-sweeps.

That god at Piccadilly was last vandalized in 1990, it says here. If it has been vandalized since, I must have missed the story. The nice thing about its height, is that it lures the vandals to death or injury. Generally, it would be wise to set statuary higher, and apply the latest high-tech slippery coatings. I recommend that the fountains, too, conceal powerful water-cannon, or other artillery.

I’ve been thinking about public statuary a lot, lately.

A minority view

Norman Borlaug is credited with saving one billion lives, from starvation. He, who received the Nobel Prize in 1970, was the poster boy of the Green Rcvolution, said to have extended through the 1950s and ’60s. He is one of my heroes, from a previous life in which I was myself inclined to honour the men and women who had brought practical progress in many economic fields. Gentle reader will no doubt already know the story, or if he doesn’t he may read the quick boilerplate account in the Wicked Paedia. I see nothing in it that differs from what I remember. The facts, now, remain approximately as they were selected a half-century ago; right down to the nasal, Rachel-Carson whining against pesticides and fertilizers.

I do not personally object to the great mass of men being fed, or even to better nutrition. That the programmes — a kind of Marshall Plan for the “Third World” (Mao’s phrase) — was a chaos of overbearing government interventions, and wasteful, often fraudulent schemes, with routine environmental desecrations, tends to be forgotten; as in any war we won. Details, details. More significantly: in ten-thousands of locales, ancient social relations were busted up. People became more prosperous, and less happy. But where famine stalked, obesity now thunders.

The revolution was also a boondoggle for capitalist investors. The bigger the investment, the more likely to succeed, because it could more easily win the game of regulatory capture. Yet by some miracle of the (feckless) human will, the revolution succeeded. Farmers all over the world were pushed and prodded, into a vastly increased productivity, as much from mechanization as from improved cereal breeds. The more clever and ambitious farmers did not need the compulsion: they grasped the advantages of getting rich. (Their dispossessed neighbours could move into urban slums.) Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive; and to be an agronomist was very heaven.

“We” (in the vaguest abstract sense) call this the Third Agricultural Revolution — the first having been the transition from hunting and gathering to settled life, the second coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. In reality, however, the posters lie. This “third wave” of vast dislocation began just behind the second, and continues into a fourth at the present day. The “technologization” of agriculture was extended through laboratory genetic modification, and now developments in robotics, sensors, GPS, and nanotech. We can already, where the markets have been primed, turn abandoned mineshafts into underground farms, and grow fresh salads and other vegetable matter in former parking lots under cities, as well as up the sides of our skyscrapers. Our supermarkets already sell meat substitutes.

And with each of these endeavours, we remove ourselves a little farther from the possibility of personal freedom and independence; and with that, the apprehension of God. “Man” in the abstract has triumphed, we believe. Man in the concrete is elided.

It is generally conceded that progress requires trade-offs. Freedom, for comfort and safety, is the usual deal. The current Batflu “pandemic” (which it is not, by previous definitions) wonderfully illustrates the typical transaction. We agree to be regulated for the common good, merely chafing at the restrictions. Those who won’t wear a mask become targets of those who do, with a few choice reverses. Similarly, we are required to prostrate ourselves before public campaigns against (historical and imaginary) “racism.” Inoculation, and indoctrination, can be centrally imposed.

According, at least formerly, to the teaching of the Church, innovations on every plane ought to be voluntary. They should be adapted to the human, rather than vice versa; to his families, and to his little plots. The principle of subsidiarity turns on this point. It is still entirely possible to conceive of changes made voluntarily, out of self-interest, one person at a time; and thus on a scale that permits local continuities.

Change could still happen, but at less bewildering speed; adaptation to the change could happen more organically; and certain human qualities, such as decency, would be easier to maintain. Moreover, genuine improvements would become easier to distinguish from the lunge towards progressive barbarism.

Should we have a government programme for this? Or might it be advanced, more effectively, by the gradual annihilation of government programmes?

____________

IN REPLY, to several objections, I would invite the anxious reader to consider the difference between negative, and positive. Traditionally, civil governments made laws. These were purely “thou shalt nots” against acts that were almost universally condemned as wrong, bad, evil, rotten things to do. The idea was to punish, or at least discourage, criminal behaviour. But Leftists, and other filth (by nature, criminals themselves), stretch this idea of law, to include positive, bureaucratic commands. They compel the citizen to do things, whether or not he wishes, and even if he thinks they are immoral. And if he doesn’t do as instructed (in long incomprehensible regulatory codes that require layerings of lawyers), they punish him. Note, the honest citizen gets punished; the “rights” of criminals they are eager to protect.

Livestreamed

There is the Mass, and then, there is something you watch on the “tee-vee.” (Or, “computer screens,” for the sticklers.) Let me draw an analogy. There is being in the riot at Seattle, say; and then, there is watching it on the news. True, the latter of these activities is safer, and you may make yourself quite comfy in front of your home entertainment centre. And then, at your leisure, do the Facebook post, in which you may express your moralizing rage. (Coolly, for best effect.)

When I was a “journalist” — God help me, but it was an increasingly long time ago — my understanding was that the job involved getting into the riot. Andy Ngo may be the only journalist left, unless we count “talking heads” and “scribblers.” Well-informed, at first hand, on events in such towns as Seattle and Portland — where the bourgeoisie now enjoy their “summer of love” — he has been beaten up a few times. For journalism was meant to be a dangerous sport, quite unlike ping-pong.

Alas, and already in Vietnam, I discovered that only the photographers looked directly on the face of battle. This is because they were getting paid for the pics — in cash, but sometimes in prizes. The people who wrote the (frequently misleading) captions were safe in a bar, back in Saigon, or more likely, in the editorial suites of New York. It interested me that the photographers were often rightwing crazies. Whereas, the scribblers were, generally, leftists to a man, or in those days, the very occasional woman. I liked to get my information from photographers, whenever possible, but the scribblers did not. In possession of a fully-formed “narrative” from New York, they had already written their stories.

Am I exaggerating? Less than usual. My caricature points to a flaw in the meejah — cowardice, ignorance, arrogance, and malice, stirred into a rather potent brew. Then we had “editors,” to do the distillation.

But getting back to church services, and especially the Catholic ones to which I am partial, I would say you had to be there. That the Mass is different in kind from a riot, or a war zone, I’d be the first to admit. Done properly, it is extremely ordered, and after remembering such aperçus as, “suffer the little children” — the Gospel line and not the horror title by Stephen King — our participation is not crucial. Except for us.

As sundry religious scribblers have observed, the spiritual front-line runs through every human heart; so that we are all present for it, even while we are running away. But it is a fine point of Christian honour that we acknowledge Christ is also there — as it were, in the centre of the battle. Or like the best sorts of journalists — and we are actually soldiers — we should be there, too, with eyes and ears fully open.

Rather than watching with our Pringles, at home on tee-vee.

____________

JUST RETURNED from Mass up here, in the Great White North, to an email from my Chief Buncombe Correspondent, reporting the latest from North Carolina. That was: “Purell dispensers with gold plastic cap and pump handle, for liturgical use.” … It turns out I hadn’t seen everything. … Was myself distracted by the thought: What else could they do? For their obstacles aren’t working. Catlicks turn out to be smarter than lab rats — again, taking the Left by surprise.

Free speech

The relation between free speech, and hanging, is an old and noble one, in England and thus throughout the English-speaking world. I rank Tyburn with the Magna Carta. In the 12th century, or before, the custom of hanging convicts from the Tyburn Tree, in what is now Hyde Park in London, was inaugurated. “Newgate,” by an old gate in the Roman wall (I suffer terribly from nostalgia), was itself erected in the reforming spirit, going back to when HM Henry II was endeavouring to nationalize the English judicial system; and the “Old Bailey” courts were set up in proximity, to increase the volume of processing.

I leave gentle reader to explore the history in detail. Prisoners were transported by cart from Newgate to Tyburn, their place of execution. “Progress” to many means bigger and better, and the efficient Elizabethans replaced the Tyburn Tree with an elaborate triangular platform. It had eight nooses mounted from each beam, allowing twenty-four prisoners to be despatched into Eternity, at the same time. This was a discouragement to civil insurrections. By raising the platform, and clearing the space around it, large crowds of spectators could be accommodated (to the advantage of pickpockets, and other petty thieves).

By the 18th century hangings were a very popular entertainment, attracting fans the way football matches did, before the Batflu. When the highwayman Jack Shepherd was hanged in 1724, the crowd was estimated at 200,000: more than the audience for a World Cup final.

Now, mediaeval executions were, by comparison, fine and private affairs. Decapitations were performed in, for instance, the Tower of London, and one really needed connexions to get in. The big crowds being a feature of modernity, methods of crowd control also advanced. But more of a show was needed, to regulate the crowd’s attention. Pioneering work had been done on the Catholics in 16th-century London, especially Jesuits. They would be not merely hanged, but drawn and quartered, and after detachment, their heads placed on spikes. Almost by way of concession, some were allowed a final speech; but it had to be kept short, and might be suddenly “cancelled,” the way they do on Twitter.

Jack Shepherd’s later, more “secular” speech, was, I am sure, a good one. Some of the condemned of the Enlightenment proved fine orators — given leave for a final rant against Church and State, or disliked acquaintances. It was, too, the last venue at which to plead their innocence, or alternatively, to confess their guilt. True, the crowds came for morbid titillations, but the spectators also functioned as drama and literary critics. Later, in the pubs, they could decide who had made a memorable speech, who a mediocre, and who had needed lessons in voice projection. The stars of magniloquence became posthumous heroes. Debates could be had on whether their crimes were as egregious as the magistrates made out.

From Tyburn, to Speaker’s Corner, is a short walk. For even after executions were “privatized” again (granted, I am misusing this Thatcherite term), the tradition of ranting continued. The Chartists, by persistence, established the right of mass assembly for the purpose of protest, in the early Victorian age. (Informally, it goes back to Jack Cade, Wat Tyler, &c.) By mid-century there were pioneering rants against high food prices, and the like. This was a relaxation from the gin riots, of the century before.

In the 20th century, George Orwell could applaud Speaker’s Corner as “one of the minor wonders of the world,” where he could listen to Indian nationalists, temperance crusaders, Communists, Trotskyists, other Marxists, freethinkers, vegetarians, Mormons, and members of the Catholic Evidence Society. (I have abridged his list.) Today we have the convenience of shout-outs on YouTube, so we may listen in our homes; while the censors gradually close in. But one can still find a selection of miscellaneous lunatics.

Yes, this is the heritage of free speech — from an indulgence granted before the gallows, to an entertainment for “the peeple,” in its own right. It was, in my view, an improvement on the more violent convulsions. I hope it revives.

Baby bust chronicles

All trends are reversible, as I like to say in my little pep talks from time to time. Verily, enslavement to trends is among the worst trends of our glib modernity. I continue to argue for freeing the slaves.

Let us consider, for this morning’s example, the global trend towards depopulation. According to the University of Washington’s “Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation” (i.e. trends) — women, who were having towards five babies each around the time I was born, are now down towards two; and this number is still shrinking. Of the world’s 195 formal states, 183 will be below the two-point-one replacement rate, soon enough, and population will have halved in twenty-three of them, in a mere eighty years. These latter include Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and a selection of European countries, including Italy, and Spain. China and others will be only slightly above half, and we may look forward to the number of fresh-minted octogenarians exceeding the number of live births, worldwide, in just these next four score of solar revolutions.

Meanwhile, the planetary population will grow, from past momentum, for a little while longer. We might top out slightly short of ten billion; unless something very bad happens in the interim. Perhaps we can even expect that, given the latest strains of plague, and swine flu, rumoured from the PRC; and a world war with current technology might accelerate the downturn wonderfully. (I like to use “wonderful” in the Newfoundland sense.) But the Washington study does not even consider such artificial depressants.

Suffice to say, we could stop worrying about a few inches of global sea rise — a trend that has continued since the last Ice Age, so that it is overdue for reverse. The “rôle of women” is rather more consequential, as they have been turning their attention, globally, away from child-bearing and raising, and towards factory and desk jobs.

I should also like to mention the rôle of men, who, according to my information, are not supplying the deficit. They may increasingly stay at home like old housewives, but are notoriously too lazy to have children themselves. They also lack the nurturing skills to deal with whatever we might eventually hatch from incubators.

The time until the end of the present century — some eighty years, or about three human generations — is a flash in the pan of geological history; indeed a micro-flash speck. But for human beings themselves, it is a long time. For instance it is at least twice the time elapsed since we were last being told that “the population bomb keeps ticking,” by the population bombers at the United Nations. By that standard, I calculate that we should only be half as alarmed as we were made by their last projections.

It is a sign of the times that the more recent study (published in the Lancet) demands that we should act in some way. “We need a fundamental rethink of global politics,” says some expert quoted by the BBC, and the experts are always happy to provide it. All they need to do is turn their last policy suggestions upside down.

Whereas, I recommend complacency.

Should slavery be restored?

“Democracy is not possible without slavery,” a Japanese lady once explained to me. I think what she meant, at the time, was that democracy simply isn’t possible, at least under modern conditions. But this Hifumi (“one-two-three” in Japanese), always meant more or less than I could follow.

Our discussion included reflections upon modern “time-saving” devices. Here I use the scare quotes because these technological gadgets don’t really save time; they waste it being set up, and endlessly repaired. The ancient “oppressed” housewife, or her slave(s) for that matter, just did things directly, before intricate human was replaced by crude mechanical energy.

Would machines (“appliances”) count as slaves in Hifumi’s worldview? And did they make “democracy” possible once again?

“No,” she insisted. They are like Pharaoh’s slaves: too numerous, and impractical to feed.

Rather (I think) she was arguing for the restoration of social hierarchy, in which a portion of the population are electors, but a much larger portion don’t count. This has nothing to do with race, incidentally: we could have black masters and white slaves, rather as BLM now propose. But: “Race gets in the way of clear thinking.” Hifumi found racism despicable.

Under inquisition, this Japanese theoretician turned her attention to Greece. She proved well-informed about Greek, especially Attic, democratic arrangements.

Gentle reader will recall that, under those arrangements, only free native adult males voted — but directly, not only on leadership (when it was not chosen by lot), but on various good things, such as naval measures, and who should be ostracized this year. (Imagine Trump being re-elected, but simultaneously exiled for the next decade.) Foreigners, even if free, were excluded for multiple generations, and it would go without saying that women and slaves were excluded from decision-making of any kind.

“But you call yourself a feminist,” I reminded her, once.

Hifumi replied, “I am. I’m sure I could control any man’s vote.” She was implacably opposed to the secret ballot.

So why slaves?

Her answer was not entirely mundane. True, they would be useful for domestic tasks, but truer, “at least two-thirds” of the population naturally belong to the slave or serf class. They have no use for freedom, and if it were granted, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. Tell them to take responsibility for anything, and they are likely to run away. You could tell them to wear bat-masks and they would all just obey. (Well okay, I added that last bit.)

It was an interesting point-of-view. I’ve lost track of Hifumi. Last thing I heard she was being run out of Hong Kong, for giving her opinion of the Chinese, and I was curious when she would be run out of Tokyo. That was more than twenty years ago. You couldn’t have an honest discussion, even then.

Bat-mask protocols

The difference between a million and a billion is not generally understood, except sometimes in Britain, where the arithmetically sophisticated may still say, “a thousand million.” But even they would lack the patience to count. Trillions sail over everyone’s head, like distant comets. I can myself barely distinguish between hundreds and thousands, and must be careful how many zeroes I put on my rent cheque. Let me not criticize those who get it wrong. Too, they should take care when voting. Never vote for a man who promises trillions, unless you are sure that he can afford it. He should own at least one international bank, and a few large trading companies. Maybe at least half of a big city. Otherwise, it is likely to be you, who will be left on the hook for his debts.

The same holds for the micro scale. Few, including scientists, or more commonly, scienticists, can conceive of something that is very, very small. He resorts to math. But the same trouble he might have with decimals, follows him over the decimal-place dot — especially if he is a public health expert. He can’t actually conceive of the numbers he is using. He might try an analogy. This can sometimes be useful, not only to explain a concept to others, but more urgently, to explain it to oneself.

Let us take a virus, for example. It is very small. Could it get through the mesh of a cloth face mask?

Suppose gentle reader is afflicted by mosquitoes at his cottage. Could he keep them out by putting a chain-link fence across the gate to his property? No? What if the chain-link fence is very tall? Still no? Could he even keep out his neighbour’s pet ferret? As ferret-owners among my readers will confirm, only while the animal is in one of his deep sleeps.

Make the mesh finer. Wakeful ferrets may still go under, over, or around. Make it as fine as chicken wire. The mosquitoes still pass right through. Will it stop even one? Guess the answer.

At her cottage, my little sister has something that looks like a badminton racket. It has a battery in the handle. If this is working, when the switch is turned on, one may wave it through a cloud of mosquitoes, in a most satisfying way. Snap snap snap! For it is death on mosquitoes. True, it is just a portable mesh, but the electricity makes all the difference.

Perhaps we should be wearing electrified face-masks against the (Red Chinese) Batflu, but I see another problem. Not everyone likes to have his face electrified. Indeed, it would be hard to design an effective mask. The space suit and the oxygen tanks are the expensive parts. But designing a cheap one out of cloth, that people can afford to buy, is a much simpler proposition.

I carry one around, in the back pocket of my trousers. It has served me for several weeks now. A kindly friend gave it to me. I take it out whenever I must enter a store, or other place that might have people in it. In obedience to the latest nanny-state law, I put it on. This is to keep everybody happy. I realize it is useless against a virus, but I’m trying to avoid getting beaten up. That, I think, is the only thing it’s good for.

Standing tall

The Great Pyramid of Giza was, by reputation, and probably by intention, the tallest building in the world, back when it was completed around 2560 BC. Oldest of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, it stood about five hundred feet high, when its smooth limestone casing stones were still in place — taller than the much later Lighthouse of Alexandria. But unlike the latter, the Pyramid is still there, and may be attracting tourists until the Islamists finally blow it up. (They’ve been promising to do this for decades.) If gentle reader is somehow able to visit, eluding Batflu restrictions, he may be as impressed as I was, some twenty years ago. I can attest that it is big.

Until 1311 AD, it retained the height distinction, according to the Wicked Paedia. Then it was supplanted by Lincoln Cathedral, in England. But when Lincoln’s central spire collapsed, shortly after the accession of Edward VI, it was (like Charles I) considerably shortened; and the spire was never restored. I believe the Rouen Cathedral, in Normandy, thus overtook it; but maybe it was Cologne. I haven’t checked; my understanding is that the mediaeval plan for Cologne wasn’t completed until the 19th century. I think the Lutherans set out to top its height, at Ulm. However, there were many similarly tall Gothic spires, across Europe.

Had the spire of Lincoln not fallen, however, it might have retained the title of tallest until the Eiffel Tower was erected, in 1887. Since, the engineers have been busy, and the Burj Khalifa now stands a half mile high, at Dubai. Modern narcissism will soon exceed that.

The tallest elsewhere in Asia was once the 7th-century pagoda of Hwangnyongsa, in Korea. It was less that half the height of the Giza pyramid, and a good hundred feet shorter than the Alexandria lighthouse. Only the foundations remain; but give it points for having been constructed entirely of wood, without nails, in nine majestic tiers. (Today, some dozens of office towers in Seoul have doubled it, or better.)

For a thousand years, Hagia Sophia at Constantinople was the largest church in Christendom (in volume, though not in height); until converted to a mosque by the Infidel Turk, upon his conquest of old Byzantium in 1453.

He has done it again. Recep Erdogan, the unspeakable tyrant and savage, gave the order to have its Christian icons once again covered, just a few days ago. It will no longer be the secular “museum,” that was by far modern Turkey’s most popular tourist destination. We can hope the more monied and jet-setting Christians will still be let in to gape, upwards into its magnificent vault, in the intervals between Mussulman prayers.

Monuments and wonders of this world all come down, eventually — those of noble construction and high art equally with the monuments to greed, envy, shallow pride, and high finance. We must not take their conquest or destruction to heart, but instead build new and better.