»  VDARE.com Monthly Diary

  April 2022


A Wordsworth moment.     Yes, April — Spring!

Taking Basil for his walk one pleasant, warm morning in mid-April, I had a Wordsworth moment. It wasn't actually daffodils, it was buttercups: a lo-o-ong row of them on an otherwise nondescript roadside verge.

In fact the "I" there should really be "we": Basil was entranced, too.

Now oft when on his couch he lies, in vacant or in pensive mood …

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Check death.     I have long since gotten used to writing "check" instead of "cheque." For how much longer will this tiny morsel of Americanization avail me? Will checks soon disappear?

Whatever may be the case with checks, cheques seem to be dying a slow death. From across the pond:

Cheque usage peaked in 1990, when four billion were written, according to banking trade body UK Finance.

In 2010, more than a billion cheques were paid in. But this fell to 185 million during the pandemic in 2020, a 32 per cent decline on the previous year.

Barclays [bank] says the average number of cheques written by its personal customers is down by 44 per cent compared with before Covid-19 struck in early 2020.

Today, none of the High Street providers offers a chequebook to customers as standard. Those who want one must make a request.  [Don't write off our cheques! Millions rely on them, yet dozens of firms now refuse to take them or charge extra to use them … but you are fighting back by Amelia Murray; Daily Mail, April 12th 2022.]

If checks are going to fade away, I doubt credit cards will be far behind. We'll then be where China is today: digital payment apps for all everyday purposes, supplemented by an occasional cash transaction (probably for something illicit).

China, said The New York Times in 2020, "skipped over a generation of finance and went straight to smartphone-based digital payments." Indeed she did. Visiting my country-in-law at 18-year intervals, I've watched it happen.

When I lived there 1982-3 there was nothing but cash. It's possible that checks were used in some corners of the Chinese economy — factory managers paying suppliers, perhaps — but none of my middle-class colleagues on the college staff had a checkbook. Credit cards were perfectly unknown.

When the college paid me off at the end of the year they did so in cash. I went to the bursar's office and she carefully counted out the 100-RMB bills into my hand — an entire year's salary. (And much more than a year's working-class wages in China. A little knot of college workers stood watching the counting, slack-jawed and silent at the sight of so much money changing hands.)

Unfortunately the RMB couldn't be exchanged for Western currency at the time — well, not legally — so I had to spend it all before I left. Among my purchases were the two stone lions that grace my front doorstep to this day (although badly in need of a steam-cleaning).

Returning in 2001, with China's opening-up well under way, it was still the case that no-one of my acquaintance was writing checks. People knew about them, but only in a business context. China Daily reported in 2004 that

In Beijing alone, the clearing centre handles more than 140,000 cheques daily, and in Guangzhou, about 130,000 cheques per day. A bank such as Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in Shanghai handles around 40,000 cheques on a daily basis.

That was all business, though. Personal cheques — sorry: checks — were a rarity.

Credit cards likewise. They did take off: CNN Business reported in 2018 that "China had nearly 6.7 billion credit and debit cards in circulation" the previous year. That's a surprising number — five cards per citizen — and I wonder if "billion" is a typo for "million."

Whatever: there definitely are Chinese credit cards; I've seen them used. There is, however, no credit card culture, no expectation on checking out at a store that there will be a gadget to register your card with by swiping or inserting. Usually — well-nigh invariably outside the big cities — there won't be.

So yes, there were checks and credit cards in 2019 China, and there still are. Before they could really settle in, however, digital payments came up and took over for most everyday purposes. The New York Times got it right: from the perspective of ordinary consumers, China went more or less directly from cash to digital.

Sometimes it's an advantage to be behind everyone else. You have no installed base holding you back.

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Amis centenary.     The British novelist Sir Kingsley Amis was born a hundred years ago this April 16th. I am an Amis fan from way back; I wrote an appreciation of him for National Review 24 years ago. From which:

Like all sensible people, Sir Kingsley regarded the Political Correctness movement with utter derision and cheerfully confessed to impure thoughts of the minor sort. He even wrote novels around such thoughts. The main character in Stanley and the Women (1985) wrestles with a question every man has pondered at some time or other: Are women all mad? Similarly, when asked in an interview whether he was antisemitic, Sir Kingsley replied: "Very, very mildly." Urged to explain this, he added: "Well, when I'm watching the credits roll at the end of a TV program, I say to myself 'Oh, there's another one'." Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.

Amis died in 1995. We should be glad, for his sake, that he was spared the horrors of wokeness. I'm not even sure that 1998 appreciation of mine would be publishable nowadays.

Several of Amis's novels wouldn't, for sure, as my reference to Stanley and the Women makes clear. That's our loss. The raucous, bawdy, irreverent tradition in English-language fiction, the tradition of Chaucer and Shakespeare, is unacceptable to our enstupidated age, which prefers simplistic moral dramas.

Probably this will change. The pendulum will swing. Oliver Cromwell's Puritans closed the theaters for twenty years; but the old Chaucer-Shakespeare outlook then re-asserted itself in Restoration Comedy and the novels of Fielding and Smollett.

It seems to me we've suffered twenty years of Puritan lunacy already, though. Isn't it time for the pendulum to swing back? Perhaps it's stuck on something.

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Chitty chitty hama hama.     In last month's diary I included a link to what I called every Second Amendment enthusiast's favorite page in the 1979 Xinhua Zidian Chinese-Chinese pocket dictionary.

That brought in an email from a Japanese reader:

Dear Mr. Derbyshire,

I saw my name in your "second amendment" page, of all places. Did not know it was pronounced [i.e. in Chinese] "bang." In Japanese it's either "Hama" or "Hin."

I need to explain that. The dictionary consists of Chinese characters, arranged by their Chinese pronunciation. The page I linked to shows fourteen characters with pronunciations from bāng to bàng, the diacritical marks there indicting the tone (1st, 4th). The page is headed with "bāng-bàng"; that was my joke.

Chinese and Japanese are utterly different spoken languages, but for writing purposes Japan imported Chinese characters, giving them Japanese pronunciations. One of the characters on that "bāng-bàng" dictionary page is 浜, pronounced in Chinese as bāng, meaning a creek. In Japanese, however, it's pronounced Hama and it's a surname.

Got it? I replied to my reader that if he should ever decide to settle in Denmark, he will be pleased to find that "Bang" is quite a common Danish surname.

How did I come to know that? From reading Kingsley Amis' 1963 novel One Fat Englishman in which the Danish surname Bang is used for comic effect.

The comic effect Amis was striving for was of course salacious. With that in mind I may as well reproduce one of the oldest and best-known British music-hall (i.e. vaudeville) routines.

In North Wales there is a pleasant town named Bangor. So the music-hall comedian tells his straight man:

"We're going away for a few days. It's our anniversary. I'm taking the wife to the little town in North Wales where we first met — to Bangor."

There is of course a Bangor here in the U.S.A. Was that same joke current in vaudeville? Anyone here remember vaudeville?

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Mongolians ♥ Russia.     In my February 18th podcast I said the following thing:

Politically, there isn't much worse a fate than to be ruled by Russians. Nations that have suffered that fate and then escaped from it, like the Baltic states, were always very glad to see the Russians go.

At the VDARE conference on the weekend of April 23rd I got into conversation with an attendee who took issue with that. He had recently been in Mongolia. That country was a Soviet satellite state from the early 1920s to the fall of the U.S.S.R., since when it has been independent and decently well-governed, with regular elections and a market economy.

Mongolians, my friend told me, speak well of the Russians. They are grateful to them for modernizing the country — building roads, raising literacy, and such.

Checking around on the internet I find a Mongol guide telling Time magazine in 1962 that, "Everything new here is Russian."

That's interesting, but also somewhat surprising. I know next to nothing about modern Mongolian history — come on, how much do you know? — but some quick scanning of internet sources tells me that Mongolia suffered horribly under Stalin's puppet rulers. Things seem to have lightened up some after Stalin's passing, as in the U.S.S.R. itself; but it's hard to believe they left no resentment.

One factor may be China. Mongolia was de facto part of China until 1921, and de jure so for much longer in the imaginations of China's leaders. When Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders visited Peking in 1954, Mao Tse-tung opened discussions by demanding the "return" of Mongolia. Chiang Kai-shek's rump "Republic of China" in Taiwan only formally recognized Mongolian independence in 1961; I don't know the current ChiCom position.

Why might this be a factor in Mongolians speaking fondly of the Russians? Because as awful as Russian government is, Chinese government is worse.

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Glad to see the Russians go.     In support of my original assertion, I offer the April issue of Literary Review.

That issue has a review by British historian Robert Service, who has himself written a shelf-full of books about modern Russia. The book he's reviewing is Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Stalemate by Mary Sarotte, a Professor at Yale.

A passage in Service's review tweaked my attention because I happened to read it shortly after watching some TV talking head telling us how, following the end of the Cold War, the U.S.A. had prodded, persuaded, and pushed former Soviet satellites in the Baltic and Eastern Europe into joining NATO. Here's what Service wrote.

More than any previous historian, she [i.e. Sarotte] also emphasises the campaigns by most other countries in Europe's eastern half to join NATO. This is a welcome antidote to a widely held assumption that the alliance's expansion was exclusively the product of American initiatives. From Estonia to Albania, in fact, there stood a queue of national leaders demanding admittance. They pleaded on the basis of experience. The USSR had oppressed them in the years after the Second World War. They feared what might happen when the Russian state rose again from its ashes. Russia's weakness, they pointed out, was likely to be only temporary. They urged the West to fix a canopy of security above them before it was too late.

It was not just history that made them frightened. As a diplomat from one of those states told me in 2017, the language that Russian leaders used in talks with them away from public microphones was different from the way in which they talked to ministers and officials from North America and western Europe. When Russia began to recover its sense of might and self-worth in the early 2000s, the bullying tone returned with menace.

I maintain my position that Russia-Ukraine is Europe's issue, not ours; that we should have quit NATO when the Warsaw Pact dissolved in 1991, leaving NATO as the framework of an all-European defense alliance.

At the same time, I also maintain my February 18th point: that a key factor driving events in that neck of the woods is the very, very strong desire of nations that have once experienced Russian rule not to experience it again.

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The Shelley problem.     By way of commemorating the 20th anniversary of my U.S. citizenship, I signed off my April 22nd podcast with the USAF Band and their Singing Sergeants performing "This Land Is Your Land."

That brought in a reproof, although a very mild and polite one, from a listener. Did I not know that "This Land Is Your Land" was written by Woody Guthrie, an actual communist?

Yes I did. (Although NB: Guthrie was certainly a communist in his sympathies, but I don't think he was a Party member.) I figured that if "This Land Is Your Land" was good enough for the Singing Sergeants, it's good enough for Radio Derb.

There is a nontrivial issue here, though: the issue of creations versus the personality of the creators. A common statement of the issue goes something like: If you saw a picture that you really liked, wanted, and could afford to buy, but which was drawn by Adolf Hitler, would you buy it to hang in your living-room?

In my opinion we hear far too much about Hitler. I prefer to think of the issue here as the Shelley problem.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was an English poet, a great English poet. He was also a raging lefty, and in fact a simply terrible human being all round. I don't know which he treated more badly, his women or his creditors; but it was a close-run thing.

Should the knowledge of all that subtract from our enjoyment of Shelley's verse? That's the Shelley problem.

It seems to me it's one of those things that each of us has to make up his own mind about. There is no right answer.

For myself, I'm out on the extreme-tolerance wing. If you go to the "Readings" pages on my personal website you can hear me recite a poem by Mao Tse-tung, who was a mass murderer (and a lousy human being in thirty-seven other ways, too). Was I wrong to include it? Obviously I don't think so, especially since I preceded the reading with some scathing remarks about the poet.

Going back to the case of Woody Guthrie: A great many people of his generation — Guthrie was born in 1912, whence "Woody" — took to leftist politics, including many much smarter than Woody: George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, to name two that I hold in high esteem. There were good reasons to do so. They felt that working-class people were hard done by, and they were right.

Leftism in 1940 was not at all the same as the fashion-statement leftism of today. Guthrie would, I am sure, have been appalled by wokery.

Sure, imagining that Stalin's U.S.S.R. was a workers' paradise was pretty dumb. All sorts of people are dumb in all sorts of ways about things remote from them in space or time, though; I think some of the points elsewhere in this Diary illustrate that. I'm inclined to forgive it.

There aren't so many good songs in the world that we can afford to exclude from our lives songs written by people with daft ideas about politics.

Oh: I'm a big Bob Dylan fan, too, and Dylan worshipped Guthrie … Sorry!

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Hyperpolyglottery.     On April 5th The Washington Post ran a story about a hyperpolyglot, defined by one expert to be a person who can speak eleven languages or more. The actual hyperpolyglot they're writing about is 46-year-old Vaughn Smith, a modest, self-effacing fellow who cleans carpets for a living in D.C.

Smith has full conversational ability in at least 24 languages, and can get along decently well in several more. He can read and write in eight alphabets and scripts.

It seems incredible, also depressing to a foreign-language duffer like me, but I believe it. I have met two characters like this on my travels, both as it happens in Hong Kong.

One was a young Frenchman of obviously high intelligence, touring the world for amusement. After a few days in Hong Kong, from a standing start, he could engage the locals in good Cantonese — better Cantonese than I had mastered after several months in the place.

The other was more a Vaughan Smith type, not at all intellectual, nor even, so far as I could judge, of much-above-average intelligence. An overseas-Chinese from Indonesia, he was in some kind of low-level trading — "import-export," was all I could get out of him. His English was fluent, only slightly accented. He chattered cheerfully in Cantonese without pauses. I tried him out in Mandarin, which I was attempting to learn: he sounded like a Peking TV newsreader.

He assured me he could also speak Hakka, Teochew, Indonesian, Malay, Thai, and half a dozen other languages. I was skeptical until he took me to dinner one evening at an Indian restaurant in lower Kowloon. He got into a long, obviously fluent conversation with one of the staff, in a language I couldn't place at all.

"What the hell language was that?" I asked when the staff member had gone. He replied: "That? Oh, Sindhi. A lot of the local Indians speak it." (Which would make them technically Pakistanis … but Hong Kongers referred to all subcontinentals as "Indians.")

George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman historical novels, must have encountered a hyperpolyglot at some point: he makes his hero one. "Burton, who was no slouch himself, said I could dip a toe in a language and walk away soaked." [Flashman and the Redskins, chapter 5.]

(Sir Harry gets his comeuppance from Otto von Bismarck in one of the books when Bismarck, apprised of Flashy's linguistic ability, replies sniffily: "A fine talent for a head waiter." Bismarck really did say that in some context; it's in von Bülow's Memoirs.)

My own favorite hyperpolyglot was a real person, in fact a novelist, whose stories about life among Britain's gypsies enlivened my childhood. This was George Borrow (1803-1881).

An English scholar named Ann Ridler wrote a 546-page book, George Borrow As a Linguist of which, I feel pretty sure, I am the only owner in the Western Hemisphere. It's beautifully done. Ms Ridler did prodigies of research into Borrow's life, work, learning, and acquaintances and summarized the results in a table at the end of the book.

Ms Ridler's book is too large and unwieldy for my desktop copier, but I did image the end of the final table here. It shows Borrow having had reading competence in 51 languages, speaking competence in 20, extant translations in 47.

The 20 in which he had speaking competence were: German, Danish, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Modern Welsh, Irish, Scots Gaelic, Modern Greek, Russian, Armenian, Romani (in English, Hungarian, and Spanish variants), Hungarian, Turkish, "Tartar," Manchu, Moorish Arabic, and "Arabic of the East." The 51 in which he had reading competence included Icelandic, Cornish, Old Church Slavonic, Sanskrit, Finnish, Basque, and Classical Hebrew.

The language that gave him the most trouble was Manchu. He set himself to learn it for the British and Foreign Bible Society, which was planning a translation of the Scriptures. That was in January of 1833. Six months later he told the Society: "I have mastered Mandchou." This, without there being any Manchu grammar textbooks available.

Six months after that, however, he admitted:

It is one of those deceitful tongues, the seeming simplicity of whose structure induces you to suppose, after applying to them for a month or two, that little more remains to be learned, but which, should you continue to study a year, as I have studied this, show themselves to you in their veritable colours, amazing you with their copiousness, puzzling with their idioms. In a word Mandchou is equally as difficult as Sanscrit or Persian, neither of which languages has ever been thoroughly acquired by any European, though at first they flatter the student with their deceitful simplicity. 

And how are you today, Count Bismarck?

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Math Corner.     Here's a wee brainteaser.

This is another one from Dr Peter Winkler, the puzzle master at MoMath. It was posted to the MoMath subscription list in March last year, so I figure by this point they won't mind my reproducing it.

Brainteaser:  What is the first digit after the decimal point in the number you get by raising the square root of 2 plus the square root of 3 to the billionth power?

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