ANOTHER SLICE OF CROW PIE
Having, somewhat grudgingly, eaten a slice of crow pie the other day in re Tony Blair, I am now tucking in to another, with gusto this time. I have been writing for months that “the U.S. will not go to war against Iraq” and now, here we are at war with Iraq. How embarrassed am I? Let me tell you, I don’t embarrass easy. We opinion hacks read the tea leaves as best we can. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong. You can make a very nice living as a baseball player batting 300. I’d be surprised to find that many political commentators do much better than that with public affairs. And I am pleased to learn from the Daily Telegraph that Bush and Rummy were of the same mind as myself after 9/11. They wanted to go after Iraq right away, too, but Tony Blair talked them out of it. Blair was wrong; Bush, Rummy, and Derb were right; the delay has done us no good at all.
WHEN AMERICA WAS YOUNG
Idly channel surfing one morning, I caught James Coburn & Lee Remick on American Movie Channel, in a thriller named Hard Contract. At one point in the movie, James Coburn, a hit man on assignment in Spain, gets intimate with Lee Remick, under the false impression that she is a hooker. She gets into bed with him, kisses his naked chest, and looks as if she is about to head south. Coburn: “No, no, you don’t have to do any tricks with me. I’m an American.” Hard Contract was made in 1969. [Footnote: What a beautiful woman Lee Remick was! The type that, when she showed up on our screens back in England, we used to call “very American.”]
MUGGERIDGE ON ORWELL
March 24th was the centenary of the birth of Malcolm Muggeridge, one of the best conservative opinion journalists of the last century. At dinner with a friend recently, the friend and I got talking about George Orwell, who gets quoted a lot on this site. I mentioned Muggeridge’s memorial essay “A Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” which concerns Orwell’s last years, when Muggeridge knew him personally. My friend had never read this essay, so I tried to find it on the internet for him. When after ten minutes or so I had failed to do so, I just pulled down the relevant book from my shelf (The World of George Orwell, ed. Miriam Gross, Simon & Schuster, 1971), scanned in the essay, PDF-ed it, and e-mailed it to my friend. In the course of all this, I read the essay through again. It is really a very beautiful piece of writing. Every Orwellian, and every Muggeridgean too, should have it somewhere easy to hand. I have put the PDF version on my website here. This is probably some gross violation of copyright; but until the writ server from the Muggeridge estate knocks on my door, you are welcome to read it for yourself.
YOU SAY “AGENDUM,” I SAY “AGENDA.”
A VLP (Very Learned Person) on an e-mail list I subscribe to recently posted the following query: “I just got a manuscript back from the editors who changed every ‘agendum’ to ‘agenda’ and ‘agenda’ to ‘agendas.’ Does anyone here have either a strong or a knowledgeable opinion about correct usage and whether or not I should fight back?”
I posted the following response: “In brief: It depends whether you are using ‘agenda’ as a Latin word, or as an English one. In English, ‘agenda’ is a singular noun, plural ‘agendas.’ In Latin. ’agenda’ is a plural noun, singular ’agendum.’ If you are using it as a Latin word, you should of course make sure it is printed in italics. To the best of my knowledge, there is no English word ‘agendum.’ There is certainly none in everyday use.”
This response caused a tiny flurry of controversy, with several arguing that there definitely is an English word “agendum”… or, if there isn’t, there ought to be. Since you will (I can pretty well guarantee) pass through your entire life without every hearing anyone speak the word “agendum,” we are obviously in the zone of the 300-year-old prescriptive vs. descriptive controversy. I find I come down on different sides of this, depending on exactly what point of grammar is being discussed. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules, except this one: English is our language and we can do as we damn well please with it, so long as we all agree on what we want to do. Which, of course, we never can….
[Footnote. After writing the above, I read the following in the science section of the New York Times: “Over the years mathematicians, particularly Dr. William Paul Thurston, now at the University of California at Davis, and Dr. Jeffrey Weeks, an independent mathematician, have speculated about universes composed of various polyhedrons glued together in various ways…” Apparently the Times style book prefers “polyhedrons” to “polyhedra.” This conforms to the principle I have just enunciated, but unfortunately goes against universal mathematical usage. Mathematicians always say “polyhedra.” H.S.M. “Donald” Coxeter, who knows more about this subject than anyone who ever lived, says “polyhedra.” I am told that the Times stylebook also gives the plural of “genus” as “genuses,” a word no biologist ever utters. (They all say “genera.”) I hope these datums are of interest…]
Do you have family in-jokes? The Derbs have several. For example: if, when are driving along the road, we see a sign that says “Flea Market,” immemorial custom dictates that I turn to Rosie and say: “Do we need to buy any fleas today, Honey?” To which her response must be: “No, we have a big old bag of them at home.” (“Fleabag” being one of our pet names for Boris, Hound of the Derbyshires.)
I raised this topic with a colleague at work once. She said that when she is watching a video at home, and the message comes up: “This movie has been modified to fit your screen,” her husband always turns to her and says: “How did they know how big our screen is?”
These feeble little scraps of wit are part of the minor decoration of life. There is no real point to them, they just establish us as members of a family, tied together by numberless threads, some so fine as to be almost invisible. Never inconsequential, though. Every thread counts.
DERB — THE MOVIE
Well, I guess it had to happen. Some eagle-eyed reader has spotted my one movie appearance. I sat by the phone for ages after that movie came out, waiting for Hollywood to call, but they never did. Life is just one disappointment after another.
It’s funny to look at those clips now. I have tried to summon up some emotion about them, but I can’t, not being a person much given to nostalgia. All that comes to mind is Psalm 25: “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions…”
HEADLINE OF THE MONTH
Of February, actually, but I got behind in my magazine reading and just caught up with it. This was a headline in the February 8 London Spectator, over an article by Robert Gore-Langton. The article is about a revival of interest (TV film, stage play, new Collected Poems) in the 20th-century English poet Philip Larkin. You need to know the following things. (1) Larkin, a loner (though actively heterosexual), never married. His later poems contain occasional references to a certain solitary form of sexual activity. (2) He spent most of his life running the library at Hull University, in the North of England. OK, here is the headline to the piece: “Onan the Librarian.”
Writing headlines is a minor art form. Sub-editors (the people who write the headlines and photograph captions) on British newspapers used to take pride in a well-turned headline. Shortly after Lyndon Johnson became chief executive, the Daily Telegraph ran a piece under the headline: “President Johnson Deep in the Art of Taxes.” And London hacks still talk about the fellow who actually got fired from the Evening Standard for the headline he put on a piece about a fire at a large country house belonging to a member of the nobility: “Earl’s Seat Burns — Historic Pile Destroyed.”
The American style is different, though often just as striking. I remember the first week I was in this country, spotting one on (I think) the New York Daily News: SLAY 5 IN BRONX. And of course there is the great New York Post classic: HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR. Is it just me getting into the geezer zone, or is it a fact that headlines are less creative now than they used to be? Anyone got any good, clever, recent headlines?
Speaking of Larkin. Philip Larkin was a misanthrope who thought about death a lot. An atheist, he was certain that death was utter extinction, and this preyed on his mind, as you can see in poems like Aubade and Next, Please. Not all his poetry is along these lines. Here is a very fine non-death piece. His best-known poem is This Be The Verse, which unfortunately I cannot quote on a family website. I can quote Richard Kell’s riposte to it, though:
This Be The Converse
They buck you up, your mum and dad,
Or if they don’t they clearly should.
No decent parents let the bad
They’ve handed on defeat the good.
Forebears you reckon daft old farts,
Bucked up in their turn by a creed
Whose homely mixture warmed their hearts,
Were just the counselors you need.
Life is no continental shelf:
It lifts and falls as mountains do.
So, if you have some kids yourself,
They could reach higher ground than you.
BOUNDED IN A NUTSHELL
An exchange with a reader after my piece about the Big Bang. He: “Since we are rushing away from the start point, and since nothing can move faster than light, hasn’t that original light all raced off ahead of us into the far distance? How can it be that we still see it?” I understand his perplexity, but again, this arises from the common picture, reinforced by the ignorant illustrators of school textbooks, of a blob of light suddenly exploding outward into dark, empty space. No such thing happened. There was no empty space, no “outward.” The entire universe expanded, very fast, all at once. That primeval radiation came from everywhere. One beam of it started from inside your left ear. (I mean, of course, from the point in space now occupied by your left ear.) That beam of light is indeed far away now — 13.7 billion light years away. You won’t be seeing him no more. The primeval light that we are seeing originated in points of space that are now 13.7 billion light years away from us, and have just arrived at out detectors. See? The Big Bang happened everywhere, equally (more or less), all at once.
I have lost touch with British politics. When I pulled my March 1st copy of the London Spectator from its envelope, I found myself looking at a striking cover cartoon. The headline was “What’s the point of the Tory party?” To illustrate it, there was a drawing of a bald-headed man — obviously Ian Duncan Smith, current leader of the Tory party — submerged in water up to his eyebrows. The only other part of him visible above the water was a hand holding up a blue Olympic-style torch (blue is the color of the Tory party), a wisp of smoke coming up from the smoldering stuff in the bowl of the torch. Standing on top of the bald head was a naked man, much smaller in size, peeing into the torch. This man had thick lips, very exaggerated, and a round red nose, and a large quiff of hair curling off to one side.
Plainly some pungent political comment was being made here. Ian Duncan Smith was drowning while attempting to carry the Tory flame. The flame was being extinguished by the thick-lipped guy peeing into the torch. But who was he? It was obvious from the exaggerated features that he was a caricature of some famous British politician, but who? I hadn’t a clue. It has now been nearly eleven years since I lived in the U.K. for any length of time. I do my best to keep up with the news there, and chat on the phone to my brother and sister about what’s going on, but somehow I have lost touch.
Actually, this fact first dawned on me several months ago, while sitting round a table with some colleagues at a dinner hosted by the founder of National Review. It is that gentleman’s custom, when at dinner, to make sure that everyone has a chance to speak, prodding us to do so if necessary. It rarely is necessary, conservative writers not being best known for their reluctance to sound off, but on this particular occasion I was feeling dull, and not taking much part in the talk. To encourage me, my host asked me to deliver myself of an opinion about the leadership of the Tory party, which was going through some kind of a crisis (as it pretty much always is nowadays).
Knowing of course that I was of British origins, and that I write for his magazine, which is primarily political, my host naturally assumed that I would have something intelligent to say about British politics. As all faces turned towards me expectantly, I realized with one of those who-suddenly-removed-all-the-air-from-the-room feelings that I had no opinion whatever, and was not even sure what the current crisis was all about. I mumbled a couple of names (one of whom, I realized a nanosecond too late, did not even have a seat in parliament any more), and stared gamely into the truck headlights until a kind colleague rescued me. Lost touch, definitely.
I can hardly believe it. I have just been put on hold by a telemarketer. Thus: The phone rang. I picked it up: “Hello?” Recorded voice at the other end: “All our sales associates are busy right now, but as soon as one is available we have an important message for you…” I was so dumbfounded I actually hung on for ten or fifteen seconds before it dawned on me: I’m waiting on hold for a junk call from a telemarketer! It must work with some people, though, or the telemarketers wouldn’t do it. So get your mind around this: Somewhere in these United States, at this very moment, someone is waiting patiently on hold for a cold call from a telemarketer. What chutzpah!
I have recently discovered the difference between men and women. I was talking to my sister in England about the birthdays of my two kids. I have an elaborate scheme for remembering these two dates, based on the fact that they consist entirely of odd digits, permuted in a certain way. Of course, to get at the actual dates, I had to unwind my algorithm. While I was stumbling my way through this, Judy said: “Oh, I have a much easier way to remember. Nellie’s birthday is the day before Noel’s [our half-brother], and Ollie’s is the same day as Auntie Muriel’s.”
WHO LOST CHINA?
The January 2003 issue of that wonderful quarterly The China Journal has an exchange between two heavyweight Sinologists on the old topic of Who Lost China? [I.e. in the late 1940s-early 1950s.] Prof. John Garver of Georgia Tech argues, in an essay titled “The Opportunity Costs of Mao’s Foreign Policy Choices,” that: “[China] had an opportunity in 1949 and 1950 to secure Taiwan while working out a modus vivendi with the United States. Mao Tse-tung chose not to pursue that option.” For reasons of pure ideology, Mao decided to align his country with the “revolutionary” USSR, and so lost the chance to get a sensible relationship with the U.S. off the ground — and lost Taiwan into the bargain. Then Mao gave the nod to Kim Il-Sung to invade South Korea, compounding his folly by forcing us into close engagement with Taiwan. Truman and his foreign policy advisers had pretty much given up on the corrupt and incompetent Chiang Kai-shek (“Generalissimo Cash My Check,” Stilwell called him). Mao’s stupidity drove us back into his arms. A second scholar, Prof. Chen Jian of the University of Virginia, picks some minor holes in Garver’s thesis, but can’t fault the main point, which is: Mao Tse-tung’s foreign policy was really, really dumb. So now we know who lost China. Mao Tse-tung lost China.
The Washington Post reports that the administration is looking to tighten up on federal school-lunch programs. (Yes: The bureaucrats in Washington D.C. have taken responsibility for providing lunch to several million American schoolchildren. What’s that got to do with interstate commerce? You are not permitted to ask.) The Post: “More than a fourth of the 28 million children who eat free or discounted school lunches might be ineligible, and the Bush administration is considering rules to reserve the meal programs for children of families who prove their low incomes.” Good grief! They want people to prove they are poor before they get government handouts! Is this administration “mean-spirited,” or what?
When our kids were smaller, my wife used to do volunteer duty as a lunch aide at the local elementary school. She has still not recovered from the experience. Rosie: “The waste! You can’t imagine! Whole trays full of food get thrown out! The kids hardly touch it! Cartons of milk, unopened — just thrown out! It was awful. I couldn’t bear to see it.” (My wife, I should add, was raised in China, in a family of four that generated about one small shopping bag’s worth of garbage per month.)
Suppose today is your birthday. What is the probability that you will make it alive to your next birthday? One can only give a statistical answer, of course. You might be flattened by a truck, or an asteroid, tomorrow. And the answer obviously depends on how old you are. For a middle-aged American in good health, the probability is well north of 99 percent. Clearly this probability declines as you get older. How old do you have to be before it drops to 50 percent? Someone told me the other day that the answer is 105. At your 105th birthday, there is only a 50-50 chance you will make it to your next birthday. Can anyone with some actuarial knowledge confirm this? It strikes me as an oddly comforting little factoid.
In lieu of a proper brainteaser this month, here is an old chestnut that still catches a lot of people out. The probability you already know it is about 50 per cent (though this probability, unlike the previous one, rises with your age), so this is for the other 50 per cent.
A customer walks into a store. He scrutinizes some items on a shelf behind the counter. “How much are those?” he asks the sales assistant. “A dollar fifty each, Sir.” Customer: “All right. I need twelve.” The assistant takes down the items, wraps them carefully, and says: “That’ll be three dollars, please.” The customer pays him, thanks him, and walks out. Nobody made a mistake. No taxes, discounts, or special offers are in play. What did the customer buy?