As a believer in writing a good lede, I should begin this column with a light-hearted description of the so-called farewell concerts of Sir Harry Lauder and Anna Russell that went on for years, but I just don’t feel like it. I’m in no mood to riff and quip so I’ll just say straight out that this is my last “Bent Pin.”
Two factors come into play here, both equally depressing. The first is my incompatibility with the genre itself. A columnist in a political magazine might normally be expected to write about politics, at least sometimes, but whenever I did the results were strained, and frequently depended for their point on some ancient ruler — I think I even dragged Vercingetorix into one of them.
After my convoluted attempt to cite the Segway scooter as a sign of our times, I avoided politics and took refuge in what is called “culture watch.” I wrote a lot about old movies, a solid ground for me because I was born at the ideal time to remember the Golden Age classics. When the Tea Party discovered the political Ayn Rand, I wrote about the literary Ayn Rand. When adultery reared its head in the South Carolina governor’s mansion, I wrote about Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Show me a political issue and I’ll show you a way to avoid writing about it. This method worked for me for some time, but all good ruses come to an end, and mine came when America started gearing up for Election 2012.
Maybe it was the endless hours spent watching the Jacobins on MSNBC, maybe it was switching to CNN and finding cyberspacey John King, the high-tech finger-painter, noodling his living maps. Whatever it was, I was trapped in a cycle of revulsion, resignation, and exhaustion that became unbearable. It was cri de coeur time, and out it came: “I HATE POLITICS!”
I’m sick of everybody on both sides, whether it’s Obama making a fool of himself singing at the Apollo Theater, or the whole Nitt Gomney–Sanctus Sanctorum omnium gatherum on the right. My conservatism is philosophical, not political, and by philosophical I mean T. S. Eliot and Irving Babbitt, not Ron Paul. My conservatism is literary; when Gingrich called Spanish the language of the ghetto, I did not calculate the number of Hispanic voters in this or that state. My only thought was: Spanish is the language of Cervantes and Lope de Vega. And, truth be told, my conservatism is elitist. In one of my books I wrote “Democracy is the crude leading the crud.”
I used to express such sentiments regularly but in today’s tense political atmosphere, with both parties set on hair-trigger hysteria, jocular is the new jugular. Nobody like me could expect to be a mainstream columnist and last very long, but that’s not all that’s wrong. The other depressing reason for packing in “The Bent Pin” is something I hinted about in my column on famous last words: I don’t think I’m going to live much longer. I haven’t been well since my hospitalization three years ago and I’m getting worse, but I refuse to exhaust myself going from test to test, specialist to specialist, and treatment to treatment just for the dubious privilege of prying three or four more years out of Fate. I’m 76 and I have decided, come what may, to let Fate decide.
Some of you, aware of my agnosticism, have written that you pray for me. You will be happy to know that I pray now, too, though you may find my choice of deities eccentric. I have canonized my own personal patron saint: my paternal grandmother, the one I never knew, who died before my father came to America.
Born Florence Hart in Belfast, she went to London and found work as a maid in a private home. She was supposed to dust the piano but she lingered over it long enough to learn to pick out tunes. Caught in the act, she was fired and drifted to the East End, where she met and married a Cockney named George King, who called her Florrie.
She found another piano in her favorite pub and taught herself to play. They hired her as the entertainment for a few shillings and all the gin she could drink, which was quite a lot. She often took my father with her and stashed him under the piano. He said his earliest memory was watching her foot in its high-buttoned shoe tapping out the beat. When she died in the early Twenties, he found a pile of empty gin bottles under her bed.
As a child I was strangely enchanted at seeing my own name on my father’s birth certificate. The same sensation came over me last year when I fell in the kitchen and couldn’t get up. Everything solid enough to pull myself up on was either too high or too low. As I lay there wondering what to do, I started to pray: “Granny Florrie, they say the Lord helps those who help themselves, so please help Florence King get up.” After a moment I remembered the iron railing on the back steps. Crawling out the kitchen door, I grabbed hold of it. It was just the right height.
An ego-driven epiphany perhaps, but I’ve been praying to her ever since. My most fervent prayer is “Please let me die in the saddle.” A writer must write. Writing is oxygen; a real writer is driven to write as long as it is mentally and physically possible. I am pleased to report that I will continue getting my fix from National Review, my favorite supplier. I’ll be in the literary section reviewing books. I hope you enjoy them — Paul Greenberg certainly does; in his introduction to my latest NR book he said “My favorite part of this collection may be the book reviews.”
And just in case I literally die in the saddle, I am sending NR an essay on a literary subject to keep on hold to fill up the space left by an unfinished review. I’m sending it today, in fact. I’ve never missed a deadline in my life and I’m not going to start now.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.