»  National Review Online

September 3, 2002

  Defiant Normality



Inches:   And how are you this morning, Sir?
Churchill:   All right, I think. Thank you for asking. Missing her, of course, but that's to be expected. No point in dwelling on her absence. We must KBO.
Inches:   Yes, Sir. Keep buggering on at all times, Sir.
Churchill:   KBO. That's the order of the day.

         — from Hugh Whitemore's screenplay for the BBC/HBO
               production of The Gathering Storm

My daily newspaper, the New York Post, gave over its Letters page on Saturday to readers' suggestions and declarations about the right way to spend this coming September 11 — the most appropriate way for ordinary Americans to commemorate last year's attacks. One reader thought Mayor Bloomberg should close city schools for the day. Another plans to treat his family, friends, and colleagues with extra consideration. A third hoped for the TV networks to show the horrible images from last year over again: "Our blood must boil as it did on 9/11 last year, so none of us ever forgets." Police Officer Frank Irizarry will don his uniform and go to work: he's on duty that day and will "have to mourn the day after." The father of a World Trade Center victim, in the most moving contribution, says that he and his wife plan to visit Ground Zero for the first time. One Edward Every declares that he will "live the day as any other." Meanwhile, our President has designated September a "month of service," in which we should all go and volunteer for something.

I'm with Mr. Every on this. "Defiant normality" is the watchword — or, as Winston Churchill used to say: "KBO." It is of course a cliché to say that "the terrorists have won" when we allow our ordinary lives to be derailed by them and their foul deeds. Like most clichés, though, it is essentially true; and it is doubly true if we put our ordinary lives on hold for the mere anniversary of those deeds. Screw Osama bin Laden and his little band of nutsos. We have killed a good number of them, and we'll kill more — of them, and their friends, and their sponsors, and their financiers, and their armorers, and as many of their supporters, fans and admirers as it pleases us to direct our attention to — as and when we get round to it; in the meantime, we'll keep buggering on.

I am a big fan of normality. I remember reading, at an early age, Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. The hero of that book is Mr. Phileas Fogg, a Frenchman's notion of an English Gentleman: taciturn, solitary, obsessively punctual, living his life according to a strict routine — in short, anal-retentive in the extreme. At the beginning of the book he has just dismissed his valet: "because that luckless youth had brought him shaving-water at eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit instead of eighty-six." Mr. Fogg's life gets turned upside-down of course, and at the end of the book he has acquired a wife, and his inflexible routines are all shot to hell. It was a great story (and still is: Verne was a grand-master at storytelling), but I couldn't help thinking, putting it down, that I had liked Mr. Fogg better the way he was at the beginning. "Luckless youth?" Sounded to me like sheer incompetence. I would have fired the dolt, too. Conservatives are born, not made, you see.

I don't think KBO is an especially English sentiment, but there's no doubt the English are, or at any rate once were, exceptionally good at it. WE NEVER CLOSED was the proud sign in the windows of London stores during and after the Blitz. That spirit was still alive at least as late as 1983. On December 17th of that year, the fearless warriors of the IRA let off a car bomb in the street outside Harrod's department store in London. Nine people were killed, four policemen and five people doing their Christmas shopping. One of those people was a young woman who was blown to bits by the bomb — literally to bits: one of her arms was found on a nearby roof. Very shortly afterwards — my memory may be at fault, but I believe it was actually the next day; it was certainly while the mess was being cleaned up — that young woman's father made a point of going to do his Christmas shopping at Harrod's. Dennis Thatcher, the Prime Minister's husband, went with him for company.

At the risk of being accused of trespassing in Oprah territory, I can personally testify that the affirmation of routine, of normality, is psychologically as well as socially beneficial. There was a point in my own life when I was wretchedly unhappy. I moped, I drank, I sank deep into self-pity — the lowest and least attractive of all states of mind. The consequence of all that was, that I ran out of money. Dragging myself from my den of misery, I got a job, the least mentally demanding job I could think of. It involved a full nine-hour day of washing dishes, scrubbing food-preparation surfaces with green plastic scouring pads — I got through four or five of those suckers a day — and mopping floors with a boot-rotting mixture of ammonia and cleaning fluid, all at minimum wage. The boss of the establishment had served in one of the more rigorous branches of the military, and considered he was being cheated if his employees stood idle for more than fifteen seconds. If there was no work to be done, he found some. That boss had a genius for finding you stuff to do.

I wasn't exactly a star employee. My attitude was not all it might have been. As a matter of fact I eventually got fired. (For taking a day off when they were short-handed — I tell you, that guy ran a tight ship.) I am sure the management had forgotten my name before I made it to the corner of the street; yet, irrationally perhaps, I have always felt very grateful to that place. The sheer forced routine of getting myself down there by seven-thirty every morning, carrying out my assigned tasks, not being able to smoke except at prescribed times, and not being able to drink at all until evening, straightened me out. I got my head together, as the saying went: attained a clear view of things, or at any rate a much clearer view than I'd had, kicked the stupid drink problem, saved a little money, found a decent place to live, stopped feeling sorry for myself, and got my sense of humor back. (The greatest mystery of this world, to my way of thinking, is how people get through life with no sense of humor at all, as so uncountably many seem to do.) By the time they fired me, I was already thinking: "What am I doing here?" I rested up for a week, then put on a suit and tie and got a job that matched my qualifications. Got back to normal.

So let it be with our national traumas. When somebody smites us, let's smite them back, hip and thigh, and ten times harder. For those of us not directly engaged in the smiting, let normality rule. KBO, USA!