»  National Review Online Diary

  August 2002


Smoking Saves a Life     I am really starting to dislike New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His latest contribution to the city's decline — in among a raft of new taxes and other business-killing financial gimmicks — is an attempt to ban smoking pretty much everywhere.

Now, I'm an ex-cigarette smoker myself. (I smoked Belair in the U.S.A., Silk Cut in the U.K. Yes, I know, one is menthol and the other isn't. I can't explain it.) In spite of having quit — it was that or my marriage* — I don't mind other people smoking, and I do very much mind the busybody mentality behind no-smoking-anywhere bans, so you can count me a pro-smoking non-smoker. To all of like mind I offer the following story, told by the English philosopher Bertrand Russell in his autobiography.

In the same year that I went to Germany, the Government sent me to Norway … The place they sent me was to Trondheim. The weather was stormy and cold. We had to go by sea-plane from Oslo to Trondheim. When our plane touched down on the water it became obvious that something was amiss, but none of us in the plane knew what it was. We sat in the plane while it slowly sank … We later learned that all nineteen passengers in the non-smoking compartment had been killed. When the plane had hit the water a hole had been made in the plane and water rushed in. I had told a friend at Oslo who was finding me a place that he must find me a place where I could smoke, remarking jocularly, "If I cannot smoke, I shall die." Unexpectedly, this turned out to be true. All those in the smoking compartment got out by emergency exit beside which I was sitting.

It is hard to miss the note of impish glee with which Russell tells this story. He was in his 70s at the time, and it later emerged that he had swum some distance — fully clothed, through icy waters — to the rescuers. Russell went on to live into his 98th year in excellent health, and died in his sleep.


Heaven Pool revisited     Speaking of swimming, readers of my China adventures last summer may recall my mentioning that a Chinese athlete was planning to swim Heaven Pool. Well, he duly did so; there is a brief news report here. Two follow-up points. (1) My information at the time was that the guy was from Dalian. No, he's from Beijing. (2) Apparently the North Koreans were not helpful: his entire swim took place on the Chinese side of the lake. I think that the phrase "the North Koreans were not helpful" is probably set up as a one-keystroke macro on the computers of everyone reporting from that part of the world …


Is You Is Or Is You Ain't Mugabe?     A correspondent in South Africa tells me the following joke doing the rounds among white citizens of that country.  Q: What's the difference between Mbeki [i.e., Thabo Mbeki, the nation's current President] and Mugabe [i.e., Robert Mugabe, white-hating dictator of neighboring Zimbabwe, who has just sacked his entire cabinet and appointed a new one less inclined to disagree with him]?  A: About five years.


Turkish Delight     A feature of my English childhood was that all sorts of fascinating and exotic foodstuffs showed up at Christmas that we never saw at any other time of the year. Plum pudding, of course, but also figs, dates, pickled gingers, Sandeman's port wine (considered perfectly all right for children to drink — I recall the taste vividly), mince pies, and Turkish Delight.

I always believed that the Turkish Delight, for which my mother had a particular weakness, actually came from Turkey. The reason I believed this is that it simply did not resemble any other kind of confectionery. It was exotic, packed in a peculiar polygonal box made of thin wood. When opened up, the box revealed irregular cubes of candy all dusted in fine sugar, and giving off a smell something like cheap perfume, a smell that went (I supposed) with things Turkish: Sultans, Pashas, bazaars, seraglios, and so on. The taste and texture were indescribably wonderful. We were filial and respectful children, as children go; but the Turkish Delight box had to be kept on a high shelf out of our reach, if any other family members were to get a share.

Well, this past few weeks I have been reading C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia to my children. A kind reader sent me a beautiful boxed set of all seven books as a new-citizenship gift. The kids didn't take to it at first, the story being too slow-moving for their TV-crippled attention spans; but eventually the sheer narrative power hooked them, and now they are addicts.

If you have read the books, you will know that in Volume Two, the White Witch seduces young Edmund into her service by feeding him Turkish Delight. When we reached that part, the kids naturally wanted to know what Turkish Delight was. I told them it is a delicious type of candy found only in England (and presumably Turkey). This excited their curiosity. Undeterred by the example of the wretched Edmund, they wanted to try some. Naturally I refused — you should always begin by refusing everything children want, on principle: the sooner they get used to having their desires thwarted and hopes dashed, the sooner they will develop the patience, ingenuity and stoicism they will need to get around in this world.

On the other hand, they are only little children, with just a few years of innocence and play, of

    … peace, before the dreadful daylight starts,
Of unkept promises and broken hearts.

A little Turkish Delight won't hurt them, given as a reward for some helpful chores. So I went to the English food online shop and ordered some. It duly arrived and was admired, though I note that the box is now mere cardboard. The art of slicing wood up really thin and making boxes out of it has apparently been lost.

Chores were done with tremendous zeal, and Turkish delight was handed out. The kids loved it. Having long since lost my innocence in all worldly matters, I expected that at this point I would be telling you that I found it a great disappointment, nothing to compare with the treasured memories of my childhood. No: Turkish Delight is every bit as exotic and ambrosial as I remembered, and will now be a feature of Derb family Christmases once again.


Columnists say the darnedest things     Writing last week on the prospect of a Tony Blair weasel-out on Iraq, I noted that Blair is the first Prime Minister of his party to win two consecutive terms of office. That is quite dramatically wrong. If you wanted to stretch a point, in fact, you could argue that every Labour Prime Minister has won two consecutive terms (though Ramsay Macdonald's second was to a coalition government) and that Harold Wilson did so twice. I am sorry; I don't know what I was thinking of. Well, actually, I do: it was something like: "Tony Blair looks set fair to become the first Labour Party Prime Minister to win two consecutive elections with healthy majorities, and to serve two good long terms in government." I should feel a bit better about this blooper if there had been a storm of e-mails mocking me for it. In fact it was spotted by precisely two readers, out of 40 or so who e-mailed about the piece. Come on, guys: the main function of readers is to keep us inkstained wretches honest. If you let me get away with that, what are you letting, say, The New York Times get away with? That's a rhetorical question, no need to answer.


Where politics is everything     You have probably been reading the stories about Chinese president Jiang Zemin maneuvering to stay in some kind of position of authority, in defiance of Communist Party procedures, which say he should step down next month. Among the reasons he is reluctant to give up power is the protection of his family business interests. Jiang's son, Jian Mianheng, controls an outfit named China Netcom, currently engaged in taking over the entire telecom system of north China. If Jiang were to step down as he is supposed to, his successors might launch a populist crackdown on corruption, and his son might find himself controlling nothing more lucrative than a cement factory in Outer Mongolia — or worse yet, a few square feet of cell space in Qincheng Prison.

It all reminds me of an engineer I used to know, an Englishman working in China in the 1980s. His job was to help Chinese engineers install his company's products — large, complicated pieces of machinery. The strangest thing about the job, he told me, and one that gave him no end of headaches, was this: When a Chinese engineer moved to another job, or retired, he destroyed all his records. There wouldn't be a single work order, blueprint, receipt, or scrap of paper left. Whoever took over his position had to spend weeks trying to figure out what the man had been doing.

The reason was politics, in the sense of "office politics" — though this is a blood sport in China. If the project went pear-shaped, someone would have to be blamed. Who better to stick the blame on than the guy who'd just left? If he didn't destroy his records, they'd be combed through in search of incriminating material. If nothing could be found, at least the searchers would have plenty of stuff with his signature on, that they could forge something over.


Cads and Dads     I mentioned the "cads and dads" theory of male parental investment in my July diary. Reader (and author) Humberto Fontova has uncovered something similar relating to the King of the Jungle. It turns out, says Humberto, who came across this in his reading, that in the open Serengeti plains of East Africa male lions are good dads, but further south in the brush country they're cads. "In wooded areas male lions do not associate with females as much as they do in open habitats, probably because the extra cover gives the females a better chance to hide their cubs from strange, aggressive males. Males do not have to invest as much time and energy protecting their cubs and can look for other females with which to mate." Any other readers with zoological or anthropological expertise are welcome to throw in their two cents worth on this one — I find it extremely interesting.


First things     Many readers responded to my piece on the March of the Godless, in the course of which I told the story of my own religious education. Some people were quite stirred up. One angry lady demanded to know my definitions of "God"  and "religion."  (I don't have definitions. I'm an Anglican, for crying out loud.) Other people told me that I can only call myself a Christian if I believe that Christianity is true and all other religions false. How, therefore, could I give other religions the time of day, let alone write a column mildly sympathetic to Islam?**  Several agnostics politely inquired how a bloke as obviously thoughtful and intelligent as myself (way to get an answer, guys!) could believe in Christianity, with all its miracles, magic, mysteries, mummery and embarrassing historical baggage. Many pious readers scoffed, with varying degrees of restraint, at the feebleness of my convictions.

Now, I was brought up to observe two precepts in this general zone:  (1) It is gross bad manners to mock another man's religion, and (2) Your beliefs are nobody's business but your own. On the basis of (1) I don't take kindly to people scoffing at my beliefs, such as they are, and those of you who did so can all go boil your heads. On the basis of (2) I don't go in much for explaining or apologizing for what I believe. I do so, in fact, with the uttermost reluctance. Since so many asked, though, here's as much as I'm willing to say to strangers.

It has always seemed obvious to me that this is not the real world. This is a world of shadows; the real world is somewhere else. I can remember knowing this even as a very small child, and responding intensely, as soon as I could read, to any expressions of it in print. (For example, in Lewis Carroll's Alice books, which are steeped in it.) I can even remember, around age seven or eight, I think, my surprise when I realized that there are people who don't know it. It is the fundamental religious insight, and so far as I can see it is temperamental and congenital: some people know it, and some, including a lot of very honest and decent people, just don't. It might, of course, be an illusion; but then, as the Empiricist philosophers pointed out, so might anything. I take the universe as I found it when I came in. Since I have been able to make my way through it pretty well, I assume that my understanding of it is not seriously defective.

Because of the accident of having been born in a Christian country and educated by Christians, it is Christianity that gives me a window into the real world. If I had been raised among Hindus, Taoists, Jews or Muslims, then I suppose it would have been one of those religions that provided the window. A different-shaped window, if you like — square instead of oval. These windows are man-made objects, sharing in all the imperfections of humanity. Some of them are a bit dirty; some are long overdue for a coat of paint on the frame; on some can be seen what look suspiciously like bloodstains. The world that they permit us a glimpse of, though, is beautiful, pure, and kind, a realm of perfect bliss. That's why I am always ready to give benefit of the doubt to other religions, while having no intention whatsoever of embracing any of them, or of apologizing for my own.

Johnson. "We ought not, without very strong conviction indeed, to desert the religion in which we have been educated. That is the religion given you, the religion in which it may be said Providence has placed you …"  Mrs. Knowles. "Must we then go by implicit faith?"  Johnson. "Why, Madam, the greatest part of our knowledge is implicit faith; and as to religion, have we heard all that a disciple of Confucius, all that a Mahometan, can say for himself?"
                     — Boswell, Life of Johnson


How's the book?     This is the question I get asked more than any other these days. "How's the book coming?"  The answer is: Don't ask. Yes, I finished writing the thing at the end of June and shipped off a manuscript to the editors. We are now getting deep into the book-production process. This is a nonfiction book, and a fact-checker's dream. I have had to comb over the finished text twice so far, and shall have to do so again.

This process is horrible and bloody for a number of reasons. One is that it brings home to you, in an un-ignorable way, your own fallibility. On my first go-through, I noticed that one of my internal references — some remark like: "… as I explained in Chapter 7" — was wrong. It wasn't Chapter 7 I had explained it in, it was Chapter 5. Alarmed, I went through the entire text, checking all internal references. Half a dozen of them were wrong!***

And then, you start to hate the book. Reading your own material over and over and over again eventually produces an emotion something like disgust. Look, this is a book I wanted to write, on a subject I love, and I wrote it with tender care. Still, going through Chapter 19 for the umpety-umpth time, I find I am seized by the urge to sabotage the text — to rearrange the words of a sentence so that their initial letters spell out something rude, or to hint at dark, secret perversions in the life of some blameless Victorian mathematician. I think I've mistaken my vocation in life. I should have been a hack writer, ghosting "autobiographies" for business tycoons and movie stars, write it and forget it.


Chinese lesson     The Chinese language can be wonderfully expressive in the briefest possible way. Talking with some Chinese friends, the subject of motorcycles came up somehow. One of our friends shook his head disapprovingly.  "The thing is,"  he said, "with a car, it's tie bao rou; with a motorcycle, it's rou bao tie."  Translation:  "tie" (pronounced "tee-eh") means "iron":  "bao" (rhymes with "cow") means "wrap(s)":  "rou" (rhymes with "go") means "flesh." Get it?


Puzzle Corner     Numerous (well, it's more than one) readers have e-mailed in to ask: "Hey, Derb, if you're such a math whiz, why don't you set us a brain-teaser once in a while?" Be careful what you wish for, children.

The Monkey's Mother

A rope hangs over a pulley. On one end is a weight. Balanced on the other end is a monkey of equal weight. The rope weighs 4oz. per foot. The age of the monkey and the age of its mother together equal 4 years. The weight of the monkey is as many pounds as its mother is years old. The mother is twice as old as the monkey was when the mother was half as old as the monkey will be when the monkey is three times as old as the mother was when the mother was three times as old as the monkey. The weight of the weight plus the weight of the rope is half as much again as the difference between twice the weight of the weight and the weight of the monkey. How long is the rope?

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* Of course I know what Kipling had to say about it. On this, though on very few other matters, I disagree with Kipling.

** Apropos which, a reader offers this link, and this one, to people who assert that no-one of authority in Islam has expressed forthright condemnation of the 9/11 attacks.

*** Yes, I know, there are mark-up languages that will do this for you. I don't use them. I also don't use spell checkers, grammar checkers or style checkers. I'd write my copy out in long-hand if publishers would let me. (As one regular National Review contributor still does!)