»  National Review Online Diary

  April 2002


Poetry corner     Try to get your mind around the following concept: capitalist verse. Not easy, is it? I assume that readers of NRO all heartily approve of capitalism. Being educated, sensitive and thoughtful types, I further assume that you all love poetry. However, the two things occupy different compartments in your minds, separated by watertight bulkheads — right? Poetry is about love, grief, remembrance, joy, regret, patriotism — our high and tender feelings. Capitalism is about, well, striving to get rich by persuading other people to give you their money — a coarse and grubby business. No connection, surely. Capitalist verse? An oxymoron.

Wrong. The other day I was sitting with my accountant finalizing my 2001 taxes. Lee is a good fellow, cheerful and unfailingly patient in the face of my incompetent record-keeping and utter financial illiteracy. As well as taking care of my taxes, he helps me to weed and hoe my pitiful little garden of investments. I had never thought of him in any capacity beyond that, though. He was just a person I have to interact with from time to time, generally with much reluctance. Then, making small talk as we were wrapping up the other day, I mentioned poetry for some reason. He: "My favorite poem is one of Kipling's: 'The Mary Gloster' — do you know it?" I had to confess I didn't. I count myself a Kipling lover, and have even written about the man; but I have never read all the way through his collected verse (Kipling wrote more than 600 poems) and am completely unacquainted with at least half of it. "Oh, you must read 'The Mary Gloster'," Lee insisted. "A beautiful, beautiful poem — brings tears to my eyes every time."

Back at home, I pulled down my Kipling and read the poem. Lee was not wrong. It's quite a long poem — 186 lines in rhymed hexameter couplets — spoken in the first person by a man on his deathbed. The speaker, Sir Anthony Gloster, is a successful ship builder and owner: "Ten thousand men on the payroll, and forty freighters at sea!" The Mary Gloster was his first ship, named for the wife of his youth. They struggled together through hardships to build up the business from nothing; but his wife died in the Macassar Straits (off Borneo) and he buried her at sea: "By the Little Paternosters, as you come to the Union Bank." Now he has made arrangements for his own body to be put in that same ship, The Mary Gloster, and for the ship to be scuttled exactly where they buried his wife. From his deathbed, he is giving the appropriate instructions to his son: "I want to lie by your mother, ten thousand mile away." The son, "nearer forty than thirty," is a disappointment to him:

The things I knew was proper you wouldn't thank me to give,
And the things I knew was rotten you said was the way to live.

However, Sir Anthony knows that his son, worthless though he is, will carry out his instructions, because he'll get paid handsomely if he does it right: "Five thousand for six weeks' cruising …"

Reader, look up this poem, and sit down with it for a quiet half-hour. It is pure Kipling — thick and rich as an Irish stew with knowledge of life, of success, of love, of human weakness, of that place where the tedious grinding world of work and money meets the longings of the heart. There is more in these 186 lines to stay with you and haunt you than you will find in a shelf-full of average modern novels or movie videos. It brought a tear to my eye, too. What a colossal genius Kipling was!


Slipshod Eisteddfod, begod!     Speaking of Kipling: Is Google.com amazing, or what? I had an exchange with a friend in which I mentioned the passage in Nineteen Eighty-Four where an editor working on a Newspeak edition of Kipling's poetry gets into trouble for leaving the word "God" at the end of a line. The editor explains that he had no choice, as the line had to rhyme with "rod," and none of the other 11 rhymes for "rod" in the English language could be made to work. It occurred to me to wonder which one of Kipling's poems that was. I typed "Kipling," "God" and "rod" into Google's Advanced Search feature, and before I could blink, there was the answer: "McAndrew's Hymn." However did we cope before there was Google? (I have a better rhyming dictionary than Orwell's, by the way: mine gives 39 rhymes for "God," though some of them — see my section title — are a real stretch.)


Stockholm Syndrome     Revealing exchange with an INS employee at my oath ceremony last week. There were 2,000 of us in a huge hall at Javits Center in Manhattan. They seated us by blocks, and were keeping track of who sat where, so they could hand out the naturalization certificates expeditiously. "A miracle of organization." I remarked to the INS man seating us. "Nah," he said, "it's all f—d up. Typical INS!" Derb: "Oh, come now, let's show a little institutional self-esteem." He: "You must be joking." Derb: "What, is morale bad, then?" He: "You can't imagine. Hey, I'm looking for another job." At times like this you realize that these government bureaucracies, for all their waste and follies, and for all we — especially we on the Right — love to scoff at them and criticize them, are staffed with ordinary people with the ordinary person's need to feel useful and valued. If that fellow was right, and morale at the INS is deep in the pits, that cannot be good for America.


Drowning in stuff     I found out by chance, and way after the event, that my kids were a bit disgruntled at not having got stuff from the Easter Bunny. Other neighborhood kids got stuff. "Anne got a CD player," my Nellie informed me with a long face. We have been practicing the gifting routines that I grew up with: kids get stuff at Christmas and birthdays. At other time they get stuff only for exceptional achievements — passing a major exam, for instance. Now I learn that other parents are handing out stuff at Easter. Probably, for all I know, on Memorial Day, Labor Day, the Fourth, Passover, Eid, Kali Puja and the Wiccan Solstice, too. What's the matter with these people? My kids have way too much stuff already; Nellie's bedroom already looks like an F.A.O Schwartz floor display. Will everybody please stop this!


The real "first casualty."     A thought-provoking e-mail from a reader in the military. I have edited it down some: "I am constantly hearing pseudo-military experts who take as axiomatic the phrase: 'The first casualty of war is the truth,' often presented as a sad statement on the military. As a professional military person, let me please explain that this statement is utter nonsense. Truth is the most important asset a commander has. Pure, hard, cold-eyed truth is essential to winning a battle. If I, as a commander, do not have an accurate picture of the battle, I will lose. I can tolerate many things from my subordinates and I do; lying is not one of them. We try to inculcate this value into our service academies: 'I will not lie, steal, cheat or tolerate those who do.' Truth may not be in high repute among the anointed of our press and political establishment, but please do not let these folk tar us with their own sins. There is no American institution with a stronger aversion to lying than the military. Why, then, are we being singled out as untruthful? The only possible reason, apart from malice, would be our intrinsic desire to lie to the enemy. But we also steal from, burn, destroy, cheat and kill the enemy. They are, after all, the enemy. We don't do such things to our own people. The real unfortunate truism ought to be: 'The first casualty in an American war is Americans. The last casualties — preferably in great preponderance — are the enemy.' Those of us who wear the uniform still believe in those old corny lines: 'Truth, Justice and the American Way' (not to be confused with 'People for the American Way,' who are anything but)."


Less e-mails about this, please     All right, all right, I am moving out of Denial and into Acceptance. Yes, I admit it: I have a chronic problem with "less" and "fewer." Please do not send me any more patient explanations. I understand the issue perfectly well. It's a verbal tic, an ingrained eccentricity, something I can't help. While I grapple with Recovery, I urge my faithful readers to just accept my less/fewer confusion as a charming personal idiosyncracy, a little gesture towards human fallibility. You could even cherish it as a sort of trademark foible, as Maria Callas's fans cherished her wobble. The builders of medieval churches always left one stone column unfinished, to show God that they were not presuming to emulate the perfection that rightly belongs to Him alone. I shall go on writing "less" when I should properly write "fewer" in exactly the same spirit … at least until I have trained myself to get it right.


Ooooo, darlink!     I have always had a soft spot for the Hungarians, since spending a brief vacation in their lovely country back in my student days. Their cuisine is one of the world's great secrets — close to unobtainable now in New York, as all the 1956 refugees have retired and moved to Florida, and their kids are thoroughly assimilated. The Hungarian language is another secret, though in a different sense: it is absolutely impossible to learn it — I speak as one who tried, very briefly. What chance do you stand against a language that has two different umlauts? And what on earth is the "illative case"? Arthur Koestler noted somewhere that as a child in Budapest one of his favorite books was Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, but that he always remembered the hero of that book, Hawkeye, by his Hungarian name, which is something like "Klópcseszkunhálnyaszmezőbószkövárely." (I made that up, but it is something like that.)

The Hungarian national character is a very fascinating thing, worthy of a lifetime's study in itself. Here is a slight flavor of it, an anecdote I have taken from an otherwise rather dry book titled Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World, edited by Peter Berger and Samuel Huntington. One of the essays in the book, by János Mátyás Kovács, is about cultural globalization in Hungary. Kovács records the following joke as being current in his homeland, whose government has an anti-litter campaign going on.

Q:  How much time would Hungarians need to not stop littering?

A:  Seven centuries and one second. In the first five centuries we get rid of the Turks, Habsburgs and Russians, who — as is well known — mercilessly forced us to litter. Then about one century is absolutely necessary to define the notion of "Hungarian rubbish" and another one to copy and then to approve the current German law to prohibit littering. And what about that additional second? Ah, that we need to learn how to cheat the new law.


Get-A-Life Award     Austin Cline has translated the Holy Bible into pig Latin as, of course, Oly-hay Ible-bay. Three full books (Enesis-gay, Ob-jay, Ohn-jay) can be read on the Web. I have not made this up.


Hazard chase     The other day I went to meet a friend for lunch at the New York Racquet Club on 53rd and Park. I was told that he was engaged in a game of tennis up on the fourth floor. I went up and followed directions through to where he was playing, in a singles match on an indoor court. His match was part of a tournament that was going on, with players from all over the world taking part (my friend is Australian). This was no ordinary game of tennis, though: it was "real" tennis, also known as "court" tennis or jeu de paume. This is, in fact, the original game of tennis, as played by kings like Henry VIII — that "real" is the French word for "royal" — in the 16th century, and mentioned in Shakespeare (Henry V, I.ii). There are sheds with slanting roofs along three sides of the court, and netted openings along the walls below. The floor markings defy description, and the umpire calls consist of phrases like: "Better than three … Chase second gallery …" My friend is an expert, one of the few hundred people in the world who know how to play the game at all.

Over lunch, he tried to explain the rules to me. "To win the chase, you have to hit the ball each shot in the next point to land on the second bounce behind the five-yard line …" It might as well have been Hungarian. However, I could tell from watching the play that this is a very subtle game, with a lot of mind-work to it. Real tennis has been enjoying a modest revival in recent years. There are now 45 active courts world-wide: 26 in The British Isles, 10 in the U.S., 6 in Australia and 3 in France. George Limb has played them all and written a book about it, Melbourne to Myopia. (Self-published: P.O. Box 126, East Melbourne, Victoria 3002, Australia.) There is even a real tennis novel you can read if you feel inclined: Jeremy Potter's Hazard Chase.

I am always fascinated to discover odd little corners of human activity like this, going on out of sight somewhere, tiny groups of enthusiasts keeping alive the tradition of centuries, and having a great deal of fun doing it. What could be more conservative? The small crowd of players and spectators at the New York Racquet Club that day all seemed to know each other, and all watched the play with keen attention. There was an atmosphere of easy sportsmanship, losers congratulating winners with genuine friendship and plenty of praise on points of technique. This, it seems to me, is sport as it should be, played for the joy of playing. There are no million-dollar cups to be won in real tennis, no Nike concessions or advertising contracts, no televised tantrums or superstar scandals; just the fun of outwitting and out-running another player, or failing in the attempt. Any downside? Said my friend: "It takes ten years to master the rules, and then another ten to figure out the handicapping system. The court fees are outrageous. And try finding an umpire when you need one!"


I am heterosexual, I swear!     Ethel Merman's performance in Call Me Madam cannot legally be purchased on video or DVD because the Irving Berlin estate, whose executors should be hanged, drawn and quartered in public, refuses to authorize reproduction. However, I am told that Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee, a video store in North Hollywood, has a bootleg copy made from a TV showing, which it loans to customers for free (which brings us over the border into legality, just barely) as long as you rent another video for their full price. If you're truly desperate to see this wonderful performance, I believe they rent videos via UPS. Their phone number is 818-506-4242.