»  The Straggler, No. 1

October 14, 2002

  What's New


As a long-standing admirer of Florence King, who retired from this space last issue, I tread here with utmost deference, and considerable apprehension. Also, with a collection of uncertainties.

To begin with: what shall we call this page now? Flo made it "The Misanthrope's Corner." That won't do. We are a gregarious crowd here at NR, certainly not well enough supplied with misanthropes to offer misanthropy in every issue. In any case, no-one could hope to match Flo in this area. She it was who scorned as mere amateurs people who offered, in evidence of their misanthropy, the fact that they had removed the back seats of their cars. Our Flo declared proudly that she generally removed the front passenger seat, too.

And then, what kind of material is suitable to be put here? In search of inspiration, I leafed through the stacks of periodicals silting up my office. How do other magazines fill their back pages, other than with ads, job ads, or "personals"? Let's see.

• The Economist.  Here you also have to ignore three pages of "Economic and financial indicators" that only Larry Kudlow could love. Short-term interest rates in Poland? 8.15 percent. Zzzzzz. The last actually readable thing in The Economist is always a full-page obituary, usually of someone whose interesting-to-famous quotient is extraordinarily high. They recorded the passing of, for example, Kenneth Hale, an MIT researcher in linguistics who could converse in about 50 languages. ("He apologized to the Dutch for taking a whole week to master their somewhat complex language.")

• New York Review of Books.  Letters — frequently the best thing in the magazine, with highly entertaining dust-ups between NYRB contributors and people who feel slighted or misrepresented by something they read. In the current issue, Garry Wills squares off with various aggrieved readers of his piece on "Priests and Boys." Better than Celebrity Boxing.

• The New Yorker.  Roz Chast's comic strip. "Relationship humor," very Manhattan-neurotic — smile-funny, rather than laugh-funny.

• The New Criterion.  Usually, nothing; the magazine just stops. Once in a while, though, TNC deigns to publish a reader letter. The May 2001 issue, for instance, closes with an exquisitely collegial exchange between Adam Sisman, author of Boswell's Presumptuous Task (an account of how James Boswell came to write his Life of Johnson), and the reviewer to whom TNC had assigned Sisman's book, one John Derbyshire.

• America's 1st Freedom.  [The main NRA publication.]  A column called — what else? — "Parting Shot."

• Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society.  Table of Contents. This is the only periodical I know that puts its table of contents at the back. Mathematicians are strange, subtle people.

• Literary Review.  The poetry competition. To qualify for consideration, your poem must rhyme, scan and make sense. In the state of poetry today, I'd happily settle for any two out of the three, but I suppose the magazine knows what it's doing. The current issue's competition asks for poems about feet — a subject on which, remark the editors, "poets through the ages have been mysteriously silent."

• The Spectator.  A wonderful mish-mash of inconsequential titbits, including another competition. Clearly, the custom of setting a competition at the back of a political-cum-literary journal is still alive and well in the U.K. The classic instance of this tiny genre was the old New Statesman competition, some of whose entries have passed into the general stock of knowledge of all educated English people. There was the one asking for misleading advice to foreigners, for example: "Try the famous echo in the British Museum reading room …," etc. Then there were the "near miss" verses, much loved by English schoolboys: "As I was going past St. Paul's / A lady grabbed me by the elbow …" New Statesman has been in a long decline, and it has been years since I met anyone who read it, but The Spectator has picked up the torch, with competitions asking for anagrams ("Francis Albert Sinatra — Banal art can stir fires"), Clerihews ("Is Michael Jackson / Anglo-Saxon? / It would be easier to tell / If he didn't always look so unwell"), erotic restaurant reviews ("One was tempted to use one's finger to tease out and fondle the tender morsels of warm, pink meat …"), imaginary extracts from Hitler's personal mail ("Dear Führer, I have recently, as a patriotic gesture, inscribed the words 'Strength Through Joy' on my gate. Unfortunately this has coincided with an infestation of rabbits …"), and the like. Current issue:  "Supply a letter written home by a bewildered American visitor who is spending a weekend in the house of an eccentric British aristocrat."

• The Weekly Standard.  [Am I allowed to mention the Standard? I am? Thanks.]  "The Parody." Funnier than Roz Chast, but not as funny as those British competitions. The current issue parodizes Norman Mailer — a turkey shoot.

• Human Events.  Letters. "God bless Ann Coulter for exposing, once again, the hypocrisy of the left …"

None of this is very helpful. I don't think Americans have the taste, nor probably the time, for literary competitions. Conservatism being a healthful and life-extending attitude, conservatives do not die sufficiently often to justify a regular obituary page. Placement of our Letters columns and Table of Contents are well settled; and comedy — beyond the involuntary sort offered up to us daily by the passing caravan — is already in the capable hands of Rob Long.

On the whole, I think Flo set us on the right path. Our coda shall continue to be a reflective essay on life at large, not particularly topical or political, very often personal or biographical, displaying the conservative sensibility at its loftiest, most percipient — cold-eyed and unillusioned.