»  National Review Online Diary

  August 2003

Why California is bust.     California's fiscal implosion did not come as a big surprise to me — not as big a surprise, anyway, as it might have, had I not taken a trip out there this spring.

For part of the trip I stayed with friends a few miles south of Sacramento. Their address says "Elk Grove." However, my friends don't actually live in Elk Grove, but in a nearby, very new, development, of the kind David Brooks has called a "sprinkler city." Five years ago there was nothing here but tumbleweed; now there are thousands of homes, together with roads, schools, churches, parks, even a sizable lake.

My friend, who is the kind of person who wants you to share all his enthusiasms, loves his house and neighborhood, and spent much of the visit trying to persuade me to move out there. As part of this project, he took me round to see some of the model homes that the developers have on display. Very nice they were, too — I was almost tempted. They didn't come cheap, though — started around $400,000, which is more than my house here on Long Island is worth. And that, of course, is just the base price; you're going to spend another $100,000 before you can live in the place.

So … who were the people moving in to this "sprinkler city"? I asked my friend. Where did all these people come from, who could spend half a million bucks on a spanking new house overlooking a lake that didn't exist in 1999?

He: "Oh, people from Sacramento. State employees, most of them." Ah.


Spats.     One additional sad thing about the death of Bob Hope was that he was the last person of any importance in the Western world to wear spats. (The late Duke of Windsor is the only possible contender for this title.)

Spats disappeared sometime around 1950 — I can't remember ever seeing anyone, in the flesh I mean, wearing spats; though they must have been around when I was a small child, and my mother's older brother Bill, the snappiest dresser in the family, was said to have worn spats as a young man. Funny how these things ebb and flow.

Perhaps spats will come back. After all, they don't make any less sense, and are a great deal more sightly, than body piercings.

Mentioning this recently to a friend, we got to thinking of who the right person might be to re-launch the fashion for spats. I named a mutual acquaintance, editor of a small literary magazine, profoundly conservative (both man and magazine). We agreed that this person would look terrific in spats, and are trying to think of some way to introduce him to the idea. Buy him a pair for Christmas, perhaps?

But where do you buy spats in a.d. 2003? Over to Google. Yep, spats galore! Isn't the Internet wonderful? Well, that's one Christmas present taken care of.

P.G. Wodehouse wrote a book of short stories with the title Young Men in Spats, dealing with the adventures of Freddie Widgeon, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps, Pongo Twisleton-Twisleton, and other members of the Drones club, as well as a couple of stories from Mr. Mulliner at the Anglers' Rest. Spats don't actually feature very largely in the book, though. Aurelia Cammarleigh does remark to Archibald Mulliner at one point, when he's looking a little depressed: "You used to be one of the cheeriest old bounders that ever donned a spat …" And during Freddie Widgeon's escapades in New York City, he has the following exchange with a lady in a negligee, unfortunately separated (the lady, not the negligee — see how infectious the Wodehouse diction is!) from her husband.

Freddie:  "May I pat your hand?"
Mrs. Ed Silvers:  "You bet your lavender spats you may pat my hand."

That's about it, though, and I can't offhand recall any other spats in literature.

Come on, NRO readers. You're supposed to be conservatives, and I've given you a link to an online vendor there. (Though they don't seem to stock anything in lavender.) Let's get a big push going to bring back spats! Whaddya say?


Face to face with the Antichrist.     At dinner with some NR staffers the other night, Ed Capano, our publisher, told the following story.

Some years ago he went on a trip to Moscow with some colleagues. Ed and one colleague joined the line to view Lenin's embalmed corpse in its mausoleum on Red Square. After shuffling along for an hour or so, they eventually passed by the crystal sarcophagus in its dim-lit chamber, then emerged out of the mausoleum into daylight.

Ed saw with alarm that his colleague was sweating profusely and trembling. Fearing the man might be having a heart attack, he took him by the elbow and asked if he was all right. Gasped the colleague: "Yes, all right, I'm all right. It's only that … I realized, when we were inside there … I was face to face with the Antichrist."

This seems to me a perfectly reasonable reaction. Taking the twentieth century at large, or even history at large, it is hard to think of a human being more resolutely dedicated to the propagation of evil than was V.I. Lenin. True, Hitler probably did more direct harm; but then, Hitler was longer in power. Besides, as Paul Johnson shows in Modern Times, Hitler modeled his organization closely on Lenin's Bolsheviks, as did Mao Tse-tung (and, for that matter, Chiang Kai-shek), and every other modern despot of the systematic type.

It was Lenin who got the whole horrible business going; it was Lenin who drew up the blueprints and laid the foundations. And, short as his time in power was, he set an example of amoral ruthlessness that others — notably Stalin, of course — could take as a precedent, without which they might have hesitated to use such nakedly terroristic methods.

Nearly everyone who knew Lenin personally (the only exception that comes to mind is Victor Serge) testifies, at some point, to the aura of concentrated malevolence he carried with him. This is true even of sycophants like Gorky: link to here and do an edit/find on "music."

Bertrand Russell came away from his interview with Lenin bearing an impression of "Mongolian cruelty."

Mike Potemra raises a theological objection, however. If Lenin was the Antichrist, then since he is dead, and his system dismantled, the Antichrist has been defeated in historical time. This seems to contradict relevant scriptures.

Not being any kind of expert on scriptural exegesis, I shall back out of the argument at this point. Still, I am not sure that my reaction to seeing Lenin's corpse (which, incredibly, is still on display!) would be much different from Ed's colleague's.


Paul Johnson's nuclear nightmare.     Speaking of Paul Johnson: Every so often I get an e-mail from a reader who remembers reading P.J.'s "nuclear nightmare" essay, or has heard about it, and wants to know where he can find a copy.

The essay appeared in the Spectator on December 7 last year. However, it seems the Spectator doesn't archive P.J.'s articles, perhaps at his request. I hope, therefore, that the following will not bring a copyright lawsuit down on my head. It is done in a spirit of sincere appreciation.

I have copied the article from my own (paper) archive of Spectators and put it on my web site here. Just a word of advice: if you are new to the piece, take a stiff drink before reading it. And you'll probably need another one afterwards.


Pretty but not sexy.     Unless both Mrs. Derbyshire and I have lost our memories, there are quite basic conversational topics we have still not yet, after 17 years of marriage, broached.

Our Saturday night video last week was How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, a very pleasant and well-made little romantic comedy with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey. Talking about the movie afterwards, Rosie wanted to know what I thought of Kate Hudson's looks. "Pretty, but not sexy," I replied. Rosie was stunned. She had never heard this.

It's a bit guyish, I can see that, but I thought it is a fairly widespread view that a woman can be pretty without being sexy, and vice versa. Challenged by Rosie to come up with a vice versa, I thought of a colleague I had worked with a few years ago, a young woman who was far from pretty in any conventional way, but who was sexy as all get out, and reduced all the men in 100 yards range to blushing, mumbling doofuses. Rosie did not know this person, however, and the best public name I could offer as an instance of sexy-but-not-pretty was Selma Blair.

I have been having second thoughts about this, though. Ms. Blair is, I have decided after careful cogitation, pretty as well as sexy, so I have scratched her from the sexy-but-not-pretty roster.

I hereby open the forum to readers. Please send in the names of famous women who are sexy without being pretty. I shall post the name of the winner in The Corner next week. The more obviously not-pretty, the better.

This competition is for guys only. Wait, let me narrow that down a little further: straight guys only.


The Great Divide.     Lotsa stuff about gayness this month, of course. I'd just like to make a tangential observation (having had more than my fill of the main topic) about another great social divide, perhaps as great as the gay-straight one, though so closely linked to it it's hard to tell. This is the divide between parents & the childless, especially the single childless.

I married late in life, and I recall in my thirties a lot of dinner invitations from people with kids, and how ill at ease I always felt with them — even though, in most cases, they were people I had known for years.

The worst of these were when my friends were trying to fix me up, a thing that happened more and more as my bachelorhood headed towards forty. The fixing-up business never even came close to working for me, but I kept falling for it anyway. "Hey, John, you want to come have dinner with us Friday?"  "What, is it, like, a dinner party?"  "Oh, sort of. There's a friend of ours who might be there, a really sweet lady …"

If you get to forty and aren't married, you start to feel odd, and friends absorbed with their kids seem to be pulling away from you, sailing off into some alien region you know nothing about. These fixing-up efforts are attempts to get you on board, or in tow (my metaphor's getting away from me), before they disappear over the horizon.

When you have your first baby, everyone tells you: "Your life will never be the same again." It's true, of course. The worlds of the childed and the childless are really Mars and Venus. Things that seem terrifically important when you're single — keeping up your friendships, most sadly — seem much less so when you get married, then drop off the radar screen altogether when you have kids.

Now, from the other side of the divide, I see this clearly, and have even developed a mild snobbish condescension towards the childless. This is wrong of me, of course. It is absurd to think that I am better, or wiser, or more fulfilled than you, just because I have done something that (as an American politician once pointed out in a slightly different context) any jackrabbit can do.

Prejudiced? Me? No way. The childless are fine people, worthy people. Why, some of my best friends are childless …


Knight of the woeful countenance.     We quote George Orwell a lot on this site, and people sometimes ask why. He was only a second-rate novelist at best, his political predictions were often wrong, and he had a definite streak of nuttiness.

Well, yes, but when confronted with political dishonesty, of the kind that was rampant in his own time, and is not exactly couchant in ours, Orwell had a way of seeing to the heart of the matter that no other commentator before or since could equal. I came across more confirmation of this, if more were needed, when reading Townsend Ludington's biography of John Dos Passos this month.

Like every other intellectual of the Thirties, Dos Passos got mixed up in the Spanish Civil War. (One sometimes feels there were more European and American intellectuals milling around in Spain during this period than actual Spaniards.) Dos Passos knew Spain much better than the average of these types, though, having lived there when a young man, before the First World War.

Well, here is the relevant passage, dealing with a visit Dos Passos made to Barcelona in 1937.

At the hotel where Dos Passos was staying, he met the English writer George Orwell, who had been at the front with POUM troops and had been wounded. "His face had a sick drawn look," Dos Passos recalled and supposed that Orwell "was already suffering from the tuberculosis that later killed him." The two men did not talk long, but Dos Passos remembered his sense of relief to be conversing with an honest man at last. Most of the officials he had been talking to had been "gulls, … or self-deceivers, or else had been trying to pull the wool over my eyes," and the plight of the common people had been "heartbreaking."  "There's a certain majesty in innocence in the face of death," he wrote. "This man Orwell referred without overemphasis to things we both knew to be true. He passed over them lightly" … Orwell seemed to understand the entire situation. "Perhaps," Dos Passos concluded, "he was still a little afraid of how much he knew."


Orwell and Hopkins.     One more Orwell note. In some discussions about poetry on The Corner recently, I said I thought Gerard Manley Hopkins's sonnet "Felix Randal" a good subject for memorization, notwithstanding that it is one of those irritating poems you can't really understand unless you know a little about the poet. (Hopkins was a Catholic priest, serving in English country districts — some of which were passed over by the Reformation, and remain Catholic to this day.)

Well, I had forgotten, till a reader reminded me, that George Orwell actually published an essay on this very poem. It is in the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume 2, under the title "The Meaning of a Poem." It is a lovely piece, very Orwell. (I can't say "Orwellian," as that adjective has developed a life of its own, with different connotations.) Along the way, in between very perceptive remarks on Hopkins's religious faith and use of language, Orwell laments "the passing away" of "the small independent village craftsman."

One of his friends said of Orwell that he could not blow his nose without making some observation on working conditions in the handkerchief industry.


How old was Tom Sawyer?.     Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer was one of the best-loved books of my childhood. So much so, that I can't take seriously any version that has pictures in it, because the pictures in my childhood edition, now long lost and gone, are so firmly fixed in my mind. That's what Tom, Huck, Becky and Injun Joe look like; these other people have them all wrong.

A thing I have never been able to settle in my mind, though, is: How old was Tom Sawyer?

He is obviously well short of puberty. The innocent crushes on Amy Lawrence and Becky Thatcher suggest the infantile-romantic stage that little boys go through round about age six or seven. He seems older than that, though.

Mark Twain's father died when the boy was twelve, and that is the kind of event that brings down a definitive curtain on a life stage; I feel sure Tom is not as old as twelve.

John Lauber's The Making of Mark Twain, though an excellent book, is not much help here (but I am interested to learn that Aunt Polly was lifted from a newspaper humor column). Nine or ten is my best guess.

I suppose there is a sense in while the true answer is "forty," Mark Twain's age when he wrote the book …


0.577215664901532860606512 …     That is the Euler-Mascheroni constant, a.k.a. "Gamma," a.k.a. γ, one of those numbers that, like π and e, crops up all over the place in math. I mentioned in my June diary that an English author, Julian Havil, has written a very excellent pop-math book about γ.

Well, last week I had lunch with Julian, who was visiting New York. His book came out at the same time as mine, and we have formed a mutual admiration society. Julian is a much better mathematician than I am, though — has been teaching the subject for 28 years at one of England's oldest and most prestigious schools.

We traded stories about the strange world of book publishing, then traded anecdotes about our personal heroes (he — Winston Churchill: me — Sam Johnson).

Julian has that playful spirit that seems to be a component of the true mathematical personality. Here is an example of it in action.

He has a friend, an ordinary citizen of no literary or mathematical accomplishments, but who wanted to be mentioned in Julian's book. Julian could find no way to do this in the body of the book, so he just gave the friend an entry in the index. The page reference for this entry is 261. Page 261 is, of course, the third page of the index, the one on which that entry appears …


Math Corner.     The solution to last month's puzzle is here.

In place of a math puzzle this month, here is a word puzzle, not altogether untopical for the month.

Two six-letter words, one English and one French, have precisely the same meaning and are directly descended from the same Latin root; yet they have not a single letter in common. No letter that appears in the English word can be found in the French one, and vice versa. What are the two words?