One of my neighbors has a front yard in the same condition. Passing by as I walked my dog, I saw the lady of the house doing gardening work among the blooms. I greeted her with: "A host, of golden daffodils!"
She called my hand and raised: "Beside the lake, beneath the trees …" We finished the stanza in unison. Bless my literate neighbors.
Is "Daffodils" the best-known poem in our language? I'd be happy to think so: it's a gem of a poem.
Thirty years ago the British radio station Classic FM asked listeners to name their favorite poems. They ranked the top hundred poems named, then published a set of cassette tapes (remember cassette tapes?) of actors reading them. "Daffodils" was number one, read by actress Sandra Duncan.
My favorite reference to the poem is Philip Larkin's. To a charge from an interviewer that rather a lot of his poetry was, well, … depressing, Larkin responded: "Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth."
This is a nationwide — in fact world-wide — book-sharing project. If you sign up as a steward you get a neat weather-proof little book-case to put up in front of your house. Passers-by can add or subtract books as they please.
As a deeply bookish person I naturally give my whole-hearted support to the enterprise. On the other hand, as a pessimist, I doubt it will do much to slow down the retreat of books and bookishness from our culture.
My actual town library was closed as part of the pandemic lockdown. The other day I got an email telling me it is now open again "with limited capacity." I have it in mind to stop by there on my next trip into town, just from solidarity with bookishness; but I fear that the lockdown may have killed off the dwindling volume of traffic they had when lockdown started, so that on entering the place I shall find myself their only patron, embarrassed amid silent stacks and empty tables.
The Giver of Stars. By chance, just as my neighbor was putting out her Little Free Library, I was reading about a somewhat similar initiative eighty years ago. This was the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky program, one of those Depression-era initiatives launched by the FDR administration under the auspices of the WPA. It ran from 1935 to 1943. The idea was to provide a library service to the mountainous backwoods of eastern Kentucky, the books delivered by female volunteers on horseback.
The book I read was actually a novel: The Giver of Stars by British writer Jojo Moyes, published 2019. It was recommended to me with much enthusiasm by my sister Judith, who lives in England, and who is even more bookish than I am, although with different political inclinations. That difference sometimes spoils her recommendations; but often enough it doesn't, and I was in the mood for a novel, so I bought Ms Moyes' book and read it.
The Giver of Stars turned out to be one of Judith's duds. Taken just as middlebrow fiction — from a structural and stylistic point of view, I mean — it's not bad. There's love interest, class interest, a courtroom scene, and so on. Ms Moyes did her homework, too, visiting the Kentucky locales and riding the trails the packhorse librarians rode. Her heroine is a Brit immigrant, so the occasional Briticism doesn't look out of place.
The problem is that from every page rises a faint odor of early-21st-century virtue. Here are plucky women — one of them of course black — battling against Toxic Masculinity. There is some of the old-time lefty religion, too: stone-hearted capitalists crushing the miners' union. I could swear I heard Woody Guthrie strumming away in the background.
That's what Brit novelists are like nowadays. So far as I know, there are no honest reactionaries writing fiction over there today: no Evelyn Waugh or Simon Raven, no George MacDonald Fraser or Kingsley Amis, no Barbara Pym or Ivy Compton-Burnett. There is only the dreary monotone whine of Social Justice self-righteousness. I should not be at all surprised to hear that Britain's public libraries have been purged of all works by the six writers I just named.
Brien's dates are 1925-2008, the same as Bill Buckley's. He was a critic and opinion journalist by trade, all over the place in 1960s-1970s newspapers and magazines. I remember looking forward to his pieces in the London Sunday Times and the literary weeklies. He generally had something funny or interesting to say. The claim by one of his obituarists that:
He was, I suppose, the last literary-journalistic giant in the tradition of GK Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and James Agate: original, omnivorous and lucid in his writings …
… is a bit over-blown; but Brien was a well-read and imaginative opinionator, which (I hope) isn't nothing.
Lenin was his only novel, and you can get an argument about whether it really counts as a novel. It's in the form of an imaginary secret diary Lenin kept from January 1886, when he was 15, to August 1923 when, aged 53, he was recuperating from his third stroke. He died five months later. That makes the book a sort of fictional autobiography.
How close does Brien get to the real Lenin? I can't judge, having read only one of the genuine biographies (this one) and that several decades ago, long since lost on my travels. From what I recall, and bits and pieces in other sources — Chapter 2 of Paul Johnson's Modern Times, for example — where Brien's text overlaps with my own fragments of knowledge, he is spot on.
Accurate or not, you couldn't hope for more detail in an actual autobiography. Brien's Lenin runs to 735 pages. The diary entries for just three days in early July of 1917 — the perilous counter-revolutionary "July days" — cover 64 pages.
The flyleaf of the book tells us that:
Since his schooldays, [Brien] has been obsessed with the complex figure of … Lenin. As only a small part of his research for this novel, he spent a year in the Soviet Union, traveling 25,000 miles by land, sea, and air, from the Arctic to the Black Sea, from Kiev to Irkutsk, following the physical path of the man whose image has haunted him all his life.
A real Lenin obsessive, then. I wonder what he thought of Damiano Damiani's 1988 movie Lenin: The Train, released a few months after Lenin: The Novel came out. Lenin: The Train is of course is about the sealed train the Germans laid on to take Lenin and his colleagues from their Swiss exile back to Russia in Spring of 1917 — "like a typhoid bacillus" (Churchill). It is billed everywhere as a TV movie; yet I am sure I recall seeing it at a London art cinema in 1990 or 1991.
Googling around, I see the whole thing — it's 3½ hours — is now on the internet. Skim-watching it again today, I'm impressed by the really excellent casting. Ben Kingsley is a perfect Lenin, both in appearance and manner; Leslie Caron is a convincingly mousey Krupskaya; and Timothy West — who I had seen a few years earlier portraying Stalin on stage — a good cynical Parvus.
Be warned, though: Don't come to the movie "cold." If you don't know the main characters beforehand, and their relations with Lenin and each other, Lenin: The Train won't make much sense. Look them up so you know your Kerensky from your Martov, your Radek from your Zinoviev. For a fully-rounded view with a side order of schadenfreude, you could also look up their subsequent fates …
Similarly, if you're not an expert on pre-revolutionary Russia — and I am not — it helps to take notes when reading Lenin: The Novel, to keep track of the multitude of names. I found myself wishing, in fact, that Brien had added an index. A novel with an index, wha? Well: (a) this is only sort-of a novel, and (b) it's been done at least once before — by a Russian!
My only criticism of the movie is that it makes a bit too much of the Lenin-Krupskaya-Armand emotional triangle. Krupskaya was Lenin's wife. They married in 1898, when both were in Siberian exile. Inessa Armand was a French-Russian beauty who married into wealth, but seems always to have held progressive views. She became a dedicated Bolshevik and follower of Lenin. She was on the train with Lenin and Krupskaya.
The play of emotions within that trio is hard to fathom. All three were brim-full of revolutionary idealism, according to which romantic love was a contemptible bourgeois affectation. It's hard to imagine the stone-hearted Lenin whispering sweet nothings to anyone; least of all to Krupskaya, who, to judge from Alan Brien's researches and surviving photographs, while no doubt deserving of her reputation as a model comrade, had all the sex appeal of a boiled cabbage.
We don't even know for sure whether Lenin and Armand ever made the beast with two backs together. My own guess would be that if they did, it was on her initiative, not his. Brien thinks they did, and has some Marxist fun with it. Lenin's "diary" entry for April 20th, 1910, when both were in Paris:
When we make love it has for me no element of conquest, of active against passive, but of equal completion, of two halves uniting, of resolution and synthesis. The first time it happened, I heard myself say as my head cleared — "Slava bogu [Glory to God], it's the dialectic!" Inessa rolled out of bed, laughing.
One very good lesson from both book and movie is how hindsight distorts our understanding of great historical events. Reading Lenin: The Novel, I kept waiting for Stalin to show up. Well, he gets a few off-hand mentions in earlier "diary" entries, but the first extended comment on him is this one at page 667 — 91 percent of the way through the book. The date is January 15th 1921.
Sverdlov shared an exile's hut for a while in Siberia with Stalin and he used to say that the Georgian was more many-sided than any of us suspected. For instance, in those days, he was fond of word-games and quite intellectual ones too. There was "Sermon" where you are given an object, say a toothpick or a bootlace, and asked to improvise a homily showing how this demonstrates the goodness of God. Stalin had been educated in a church seminary and could be very funny at this. Then there was "Proverbs" where you had to invent a convincing peasant saying. Stalin was good at that as well. Yakov always remembered one of Joseph Vissarionovich's winning entries — "There are people with gloves who have no fingers."
I wonder if Stalin is still playing the game? …
Oh, Stalin was playing a game all right. It wasn't "Sermon" or "Proverbs," though.
Not until fifty pages further on — mid-July 1922, after Lenin's first stroke — is there anything said about Stalin as a power-player in the now well-established Bolshevik elite. Stalin doesn't appear at all in Lenin: The Train.
Neither Lenin nor any of his comrades — except, according to Alan Brien, Georgy Pyatakov — took Stalin seriously. They thought he was a nonentity, a bumpkin, not very bright or politically adept. Alarms did not go off for Lenin until the end of 1922, when he was feeble and had only a year left to live.
We think of Stalin in hindsight as a towering figure of the mid-20th century, with Lenin merely his herald, setting the stage for him. Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks would have been astounded to know that.
OK, that's a lot of Leniniana. Wait, though: this is VDARE.com. Didn't Vladimir Ilyich have anything to say about immigration?
He certainly did, at any rate according to Alan Brien. From the "diary" entry for October 29th, 1913:
There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this new movement of the clans. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the WHOLE world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth. It will not be long before Britain, France, and Italy will also be importing their own colonial peoples to do the dirty work at home. Here is a field, ripe for agitation, that we must not neglect to harvest.
Oh, we won't, comrade, we won't.
The Eastern Front. From fiction to semi-fiction to nonfiction: this month I read (well, finished: I'd started it in mid-March) Alexander Watson's 2020 book The Fortress, which is about the siege of Przemyśl in 1914-15.
Przemyśl (you can hear the pronunciation at Wikipedia) is a city in, today, southeast Poland. When war broke out in 1914, though, there was no such nation as independent Poland. Most of the territory of today's Poland was divided between the German and Russian empires. The remainder belonged to Galicia, the northeastern-most province of Austria-Hungary.
That's where Przemyśl was located: in Austro-Hungarian Galicia, thirty miles from the border with Russian Ukraine. A frontier town, in fact: one of particular strategic importance, as Przemyśl was on key transportation routes (river, rail) and just north of the Carpathian mountains, which had historically offered Hungary some protection against northern attack.
The rulers of Austria-Hungary were very well aware of the city's strategic importance. In the years before 1914 they had built a ring of 37 masonry-and-concrete forts around it, four or five miles from the city center, supplemented by an inner ring of 21 earthwork forts and batteries a mile or so from the center. (I'm working from Watson's maps: Wikipedia says 44 forts in the outer circle.)
At the outbreak of war these defenses were supplemented with trenches, hundreds of gun emplacements, and thousands of miles of barbed wire. Przemyśl was a fortress indeed. With this as their command base, the Austro-Hungarians sent an army north into Russian Poland. After some initial victories, everything went wrong. By mid-September the Russians had counter-attacked, advanced into Galicia, and surrounded the Fortress.
There followed a three-week siege before a relieving Austro-Hungarian army arrived; but then that army was defeated. Under pressure from Big Brother Germany, who did not think Galicia important, Austria-Hungary evacuated its troops from the province — except for Przemyśl — altogether. By the second week of November the Fortress was under siege by the Russians again.
Why wasn't Przemyśl's garrison evacuated with the rest of Galicia's troops? Apparently the authorities in Vienna wanted a symbol of the Empire's heroic resistance, for regime legitimacy with their own people and Big Brother.
This second siege lasted almost five months. It ended in a suicidal Götterdämmerung of noise and fire on March 21st-22nd 1915 as the garrison commanders fired off their artillery's remaining ammunition, destroyed the guns, and blew up the city's forts and bridges prior to surrendering.
Alexander Watson gives a vivid account of those two sieges, backed by prodigies of research. He leaves no doubt about the incompetence of the Austro-Hungarian general staff, which wasn't helped by the bizarrely polyethnic composition of the units they had to command. The common characterization of Britain's WW1 army was "Lions led by donkeys." Austria-Hungary's army was more a case of lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, lynxes, cheetahs, cougars, pumas, and ocelots led by donkeys.
Some officers may have gotten by with "Army Slavic," a most peculiar military Esperanto blending Slavic grammar with German military terminology … Others who spoke only German relied on the battalion's few Jews to act as intermediaries.
(Although Army Slavic would have been no help in dealing with Hungarian troops, that language being neither Slavonic nor Germanic. Ah, multiculturalism!)
The main impression left by The Fortress is one of horror. Galicia in general, and Przemyśl in particular, were not places you'd want to have been in during fall and winter of 1914-15.
Watson leavens the narrative with some dark humor, though, mainly based on staff stupidity. There was for example General Kusmanek's deeply silly system for identifying enemy troops disguised in allied uniforms, described at length in pages 195-7, sample:
Though frontline officers were too polite to point it out, the other glaring problem with the new system was that standing in the middle of no-man's-land in broad daylight whistling and wildly gesticulating made troops sitting ducks. Quite what Russian sentries thought at the surreal sight of their enemy pirouetting in the open is sadly not recorded, but if they could overcome their astonishment there were easy kills to be had.
There are some neat Trivial-Pursuit-type curiosities, too. Przemyśl had a small airfield in operation during the second siege, so that troops desperate for communication with their families could use the world's very first (claims Watson) airmail service.
I share the common English fascination with WW1 — my father's war — but my eyes have mainly been focused on the Western Front. Stuff was happening in the east, too: stuff of at least equal horror, and arguably greater world-historical importance. I'm obliged to Alexander Watson and the friend who recommended his book for filling some of that gap in my understanding.
Neurosurgical preference. Yes, it's been a bookish month, all right. Other things have been happening, though.
For instance: On April 17th I got a hate email, the first I've received for quite a while:
Wow buddy, your brain is evidently undergoing some serious atrophy. You may wanna consult a top class neurosurgeon (preferably white) before you start experiencing some profound delusions and paranoia. Oops, too late.
Well, it's better to be noticed than ignored, so … thanks, I guess.
I said as much as I want to say about hate email in general twenty years ago, and don't have anything new to add. I'd just like to tell this correspondent he's wrong about my neurosurgical preference.
In that, I'm on the same page — it's actually page 413 in my 1988 Bantam Books edition — as the perp that Assistant D.A. Torres tells Kramer about in Bonfire of the Vanities:
One time I was in the pens, and this black lawyer from the 18b [i.e. court-appointed private attorney — JD] comes in looking for the client he's been assigned, and he starts yelling out his name. You know the way they yell out the names in the pens. Anyway, the guy he's been assigned is black, and he comes walking over to the bars, and he looks this guy in the eye and he says, "Get lost, mother — I want a Jew."
Canceling Tennyson. I'll close this diary with what musicians call a da capo, returning to the theme I started with: great English poets. The one I have in mind here is Tennyson.
That's a result of reading Anthony Esolen's essay "Deconstructing the Decolonizers" in the April/May issue of Chronicles magazine. Esolen argues a parallel between the ideologues who have taken over our schools and colleges, and the European colonial powers in times past. In this parallel our youngsters, our school and college students, are like colonial subjects being robbed of their customs and traditions by those colonizers, albeit often with good intentions.
He qualifies the parallel by noting that old-style colonialism was constructive as well as destructive, spreading the glories of our civilization world-wide. Today's educators, by contrast, only destroy — a colonial type of activity that they have the gross impertinence to describe as "decolonizing." To replace what they have destroyed they offer only worthless, soul-less dreck like Critical Race Theory.
A school principal in Massachusetts has boasted of removing the Odyssey from the curriculum. That, too, is cast as "decolonization." It is beyond ridiculous. For many decades, we have been tossing classical education into the ditch. Forget about studying Latin or Greek. Very few college students will have read Milton. Almost none will have read Tennyson. Most will not have heard of this Victorian poet; I know this from long experience.
That shocked me perhaps more than the average reader. For one thing, I am a major fan of Tennyson. If you were to ask me which, of all the poems I know in our language, is my favorite, I might give you different answers on different days, but there would be many, many days when I'd reply "Tithonus." If you were to ask me to quote the most evocative single line of English verse I would likely, subject to the same qualification, give you this one from "The Princess":
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font.
For another thing there was a memory from my days teaching English literature at a college in communist China forty years ago. My teaching materials were of course government-approved, the commentaries following the Party line. The classic English poets were well represented: Shakespeare (Marx was a fan), Shelley (major lefty), Burns (a peasant!), even Wordsworth (praised the French Revolution … at first).
Tennyson, however, didn't even get a mention. Why not? I consulted a standard 1979 ChiCom encyclopedia, which I still own. Here is the entire entry for Tennyson:
Dīngníshēng (Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892). English poet. Born into a clerical family. All his poems beautify capitalist society and bourgeois morality and ethics. In 1850 he was made Poet Laureate. His works one-sidedly promote lyricism and become merely ornate. His most important poems are "The Princess," "Maud," "In Memoriam," "Enoch Arden," "Idylls of the King," etc.
So, a class enemy. Just another reminder, if you needed one, that there isn't much daylight between the ideology that has taken over our schools today and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought.
Math Corner. I was a rather dreamy kid. When, at age fifteen, my school math classes bifurcated into Pure and Applied, I instinctively preferred Pure. I wanted to learn stuff that was of no practical use at all.
Things didn't work out altogether as I expected. Projective geometry was satisfyingly useless at the level we took it to, but we soon learned that calculus, a big part of the Pure course, has been the foundation of practical science for three hundred years. You win some, lose some.
Now, with a mature understanding, I know that very little math is altogether pure; and if any area of math looks to be, wait a few decades and then check back. When geometer Elwin Christoffel (whose personality has come down to us, perhaps unfairly, as "shy, distrustful, unsociable, irritable and brusque") cooked up his symbols of the First and Second Kind 150 years ago, he could not have imagined that they would be keys to the General Theory of Relativity, helping to keep communication satellites in orbit. Mathematical logic looked pretty airy-fairy in 1900: it now lies at the foundations of Computer Science.
There are still matters of degree, though. Number Theory has descended into regrettable practicality in areas like cryptography and information science, but much of it is still blessedly inutile.
Consider, for example, digitally delicate primes, the subject of a fascinating short March 30th article by Steve Nadis at Quanta magazine.
Think of a prime number (and cast from your mind the example of truly great algebraist Alexander Grothendieck). I'll take 61. Now answer this question: Can I, by changing just one digit of that number to some other digit, turn it into a different prime?
In the case of 61 the answer is yes. I can change the 6 to a 1 for 11, or to 3 for 31, and so on; or I can change the 1 to a 7 for 67.
In 1978 the late Murray Klamkin posed this question about that question: Are there any primes for which the answer is no? Such a prime would, if you changed any single digit to some other digit, always give you a composite number, a non-prime.
The great but slightly weird Hungarian number theorist Paul Erdős proved that yes, there are such primes — an infinity of them, in fact. They are not easy to find. The smallest is 294001. You can see the first twenty-five of the little devils at the OEIS. They are officially called "digitally delicate primes."
Once you've stumbled on a family of numbers like that and proved some basic theorems about it, the fun thing then is to define related families and sub-families, and devise theorems to be proved about them.
Suppose, for instance, you enlarge this inquiry by allowing yourself to add leading zeroes to the decimal expression of your prime: to consider not just 61 but 061, 0061, 000000000061, and so on. What if you change one of those zeroes to some other digit? That spawns a family of "widely digitally delicate" primes, for which your alteration is certain to destroy the primality. We don't currently have an example of a widely digitally delicate prime, but as of a few months ago we know that the suckers exist.
Or what if, instead of replacing a digit, you insert a new digit between two digits of a prime? Or: How does this all apply if you use some base other than ten for writing your numbers? And so on …
… and on, and on. The questions proliferate, spawning and dividing like living things. That's the fun of Number Theory. And this corner of it, the corner inhabited by digitally delicate primes and their offspring, is perfectly, happily useless … so far.
Oh, it's a brainteaser you're wanting? I'm not sure this one really counts, but it defeated me (and has, I should say, nothing whatsoever to do with digitally delicate primes). It may in fact be one of those puzzles that divides the human race into two non-overlapping subsets. Persons of a visual-artistic inclination perhaps get it right away, while those whose thinking is more abstract and numerical overthink it, as I did.
(For all 35 years we've been married Mrs Derbyshire and I have been setting aside an evening now and then to sit and watch a rented movie, and for just exactly as long she's been grumbling that I fall asleep halfway through the show.)
Anyway, this was going round on WeChat, my lady's Chinese social network. She challenged me with it, and I failed.
Here is a false statement:
5+5+5 = 550.
Can you make the statement true by adding one single line?
[Added when archiving: I think what actually failed here was my Chinese. Mrs D showed me that on her smartphone. I looked & mentally translated it as above. I think the question as actually posed was probably: "Can you make this a true equality by adding a single line?"]