I know it’s after Christmas, but I still have kind of a Christmas present for you. You have been good, right? Here is an Impromptus about Clive A. Babkirk. It’s an expansion of a piece we have in the magazine. Clive is not a public figure, such as we usually write about around here (and rightly so). But he’s an “American original” and a top-drawer gent. And you will appreciate knowing him, I think.
My fear is that we will not see the likes of him again. That the American mold is broken, and we are caput. But as I say in Impromptus, “Probably people have thought this since colonial times. There is always another generation, doing the necessary, rising to the occasion, demonstrating good.”
I’d like to recall, here on the Corner, a conversation I had last year with Michael Gove. He was Britain’s education minister at the time; now he is justice minister. I wrote up our conversation in four parts on this site. Let me quote from Part III. I’m asking Gove about America, “a country he knows well, and admires highly.”
“Are we going down the tubes?” “No!” he says. “Are we ‘fundamentally transformed’?” “No!” “Is it curtains for us?” “No!” “Lights out?” “No!” He then says he would not criticize President Obama or his administration, being a member of a government allied to America. But he does discuss America.
At different times, he says, Americans have asked themselves, “Is this a period of decline?” He guesses that this began not long after the founding of the Republic. Twenty or thirty years in, Americans most likely said, “Republican virtue is slipping away, the temptations of expansion or empire are eating away at the soul of our national project.” Flash-forward to TR, who lamented the diminution of martial vigor, and, what with big-money interests, the sapping of the entrepreneurial spirit.
“If you look at America now,” Gove says, “yes, you have a fiscal problem — but then so do most developed countries. And America is the place where tomorrow happens. It’s the most innovative and exciting country in the world in terms of technological change and in terms of intellectual endeavor.”
“Still?” I say. “Yes,” he responds. “Whose magazines and books do we want to read? Whether it’s the NYRB [New York Review of Books] or National Review …”
I say, “It’s hard for me to tell. Maybe I am too inside. A fish doesn’t know it’s wet.” “But I can see it from the outside,” says Gove. “American writing, whether it’s journalism or fiction or non-fiction, I think, is culturally far more significant than any other nation’s. Technology is a given. America’s higher-education institutions are the best educational institutions in the world.”
He then mentions “the old Churchill cliché,” which goes (in one version), “America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.” Gove says, “There’s a moral sense that guides America’s leaders, which, for whatever reason, kicks in sooner or later. Even if you’ve got a bad president or a difficult time, it’s always the case that, when the crisis requires it, sooner or later America rises to the occasion.”
Fingers crossed, y’all. Meanwhile, enjoy Clive.
P.S. I’d like to explain the picture we have, accompanying the article. It is of Mr. Babkirk in his shop. He’s standing next to the last piece of furniture he made. (He gave up the making of furniture five years ago. Now he just makes smaller pieces, or “gift items,” as he says.) And he has in his left hand what he jokingly calls his “briefcase”: a piece of wood that has a natural “handle” on it.
(I should mention — as you’ll find out — that Clive is a woodworker and furniture-maker. If it can be made out of wood, he does. An extraordinary craftsman, and personality.)