»  National Review Online Diary

  December 6, 2001


Out of my system     No, I'm not going to blog for ever. It's just a phase I'm going through. Bear with me, please, till I've got it out of my system. [I'm assuming I have formed the verb correctly here:  "blog, v.i. — to yoke together random thoughts on unconnected topics and present them as a newspaper, magazine or webzine column."]

Who are we?     On the phone with my sister in England. She tells me that a mutual friend has bought a house in France, and adds: "A lot of people here are doing that, now." Stirred to indignation with thoughts of Agincourt, Crécy, Blenheim, Waterloo and my father muttering They let us down in the War, you know, I asked her why so many English people wanted to live in France. She: "Because the French still know who they are. We don't, not any more." Poor old England!

George Harrison, R.i.P.     I can claim one tenuous link with the Beatle George Harrison, who died last week: Like him, I am a Lancastrian. "Derbyshire" and "Harrison" are both Lancashire surnames from far back. My father's family moved to Shropshire when Dad was an infant and he was raised a Shropshire lad, but he had been born in Westhoughton, five miles east of Wigan, which is the ancestral hearth-place of the Derbyshire clan, and was the home town of both of his parents. The essayist and historian Paul Johnson, whom I quote a lot because I find him very quotable, is another Lancastrian, born in Preston I think, and in many ways a typical representative of the species, with all the points (as they say at dog shows) very well displayed. Peter Brimelow, author of Alien Nation, co-proprietor of the excellent VDARE immigration-restrictionist web site, and formerly an NR editor, is another Lancastrian.

All the Beatles were technically Lancastrian, of course, since Liverpool is a city in Lancashire. [Note: At the high tide of bureaucratic managerialism in England, in the 1970s, the old county system was reorganized, and Liverpool is now in an administrative area named "Merseyside." However, no sane English person — certainly no true conservative — pays any attention to these arbitrary and artificial new regional designations.] Liverpudlians, however, are for the most part only geographically Lancastrian. Like any great port city — New York, Shanghai, Marseilles — Liverpool has a culture, and even a dialect, of its own, separate from its immediate hinterland. It seemed to me, though, that George was more Lancastrian than Liverpudlian: introvert rather than extrovert, witty rather than cheeky, action more than talk.

Until the Industrial Revolution came up, Lancashire was a backwater place, poor and neglected, vegetating in obscurity under the control of a few powerful families who had mostly mastered the art of being left alone by the Crown. The Reformation largely passed by the county without stopping. Nobody much cared whether these uncouth folk were Protestant or Catholic, with the result that many of them — whole towns and villages — just stayed Catholic, down to the present day. My dad's mother, whose surname was Daniels, was was one of these "recusant" Catholics, though Dad's own father was staunch Church of England.

There is in fact a strong strain of mysticism in the Lancashire character, much encouraged by the landscape. The Pendle witches, a great 17th-century cause célèbre, came from the Forest of Pendle, over Burnley way. North Lancashire is dominated by the Trough of Bowland, a huge expanse of wild, empty moors (called "fells" in the north of England) broken up with pleasant wooded valleys — one of the great unknown beauties of England, and a terrific place to be a hermit, if you feel like taking twenty years off for some serious meditation. South of the Trough, in the middle of nowhere down by Clitheroe, is Stonyhurst, a forbidding pile of gloomy square stone containing a boys' boarding school run by Jesuits. Paul Johnson went to Stonyhurst. So did Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes; though Doyle's lineage was Irish Catholic, not recusant. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins taught there, as did J.R.R. Tolkien, the hobbit man — the school has a Tolkien Library.

That odd streak of mysticism aside, we Lancastrians are a lean, hardy, frugal people, short of speech but long of memory, with a ready wit (practically all English comedians come from Lancashire) and a grim stolid courage in battle. We treasure and honor our own, and I salute the memory of George Harrison: a kind, humorous, thoughtful, watchful man, a man of words few but true — a worthy addition to the honor roll of the Red Rose.

Marching Asians     Erratum. In my Christmas book selections for NRO Weekend I passed the remark that India's population will surpass China's by the end of this decade. I should have said "around mid-century": the 1999 numbers are, in billions, 1.25 for China and 1.00 for India. The 2015 numbers, according to a cute little statistical handbook The Economist just sent me, will be 1.41 and 1.23, which gives a cross-over point some time in February 2057 on a linear extrapolation. Sorry about that — I quoted hearsay without checking. Who could imagine that a journalist would ever do such a thing!

Personal reader wanted     I read too much, way too much. One of the things we do at NR — the print NR — is sit around a large table every second Monday and trade ideas for the one-paragraph snippets that appear at the front of the magazine under the heading "The Week". (Efforts to persuade the editors to change this heading to the much more logical "The Fortnight" have so far fallen on stony ground. Apparently some dismayingly large proportion of Americans don't know what "fortnight" means.) Well, at the last one of these conferences I put forward a piece I had read in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Harvard's acquisition of the "postcolonialist" theorist Homi Bhabha, an academic mountebank of the first water. Professor Bhabha would make a good paragraph, I said, and started to explain who he was. A colleague gently interrupted to remind me that back in the October 15th issue of NR we had run a 2,000-word piece by Roger Kimball on the egregious Bhabha. The distressing thing was that I had read Roger's article at the time, enjoyed it, … and then forgotten all about it.

It wasn't the first time this has happened. I'm in conversation with someone, on some topic. He says: "Did you see what so-and-so wrote about this in the Standard?" No, I say, I didn't. He gives me a précis. I think: "That sounds fascinating," go off to the library and look up the piece … and halfway through realize that I did read it after all.

The root problem here is that there is just too damn much good writing now for a human mind — at any rate, a middle-aged, non-super-retentive mind — to hold. I feel that, as part of my professional duties, I have to read it all, with the result that half of it slops over the edge of the tub and is wasted. I spend the first hour of every working morning trawling through news and opinion sites on the Web. Then there are the subscriptions that come in through my mailbox. On returning from six weeks abroad in early August, I found awaiting me (you can sing this to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas"):

6 copies each of The Economist, The New Yorker and Science News
5 copies each of The Spectator and The New Republic
4 copies of Human Events
3 copies each of National Review and The Weekly Standard
2 copies each of Chronicles and PC World
1 copy each of American Mathematical Monthly, China Journal, American Renaissance, my local Diocesan newsletter, the NRA magazine, New York Review of Books, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, First Things, Literary Review and American Spectator.

(Yes, I know, the list doesn't make sense. NR is fortnightly; The Weekly Standard is, duh, weekly; how come I had the same numbers of both waiting for me? Beats me, I just report the facts, which I wrote down at the time with the idea of doing a column on information overload. Perhaps the guys down at the Post Office sorting room were backed up in their reading.)

When we lived in Manhattan my wife had a friend who worked as a "personal shopper." That is, she had clients — rich socialite women with full schedules — who wanted to buy clothes, jewelry, and whatever else rich socialite women buy, efficiently, rather than just browsing all the stores. Rosie's friend would help them do this. What I need is a "personal reader"!

The first time I lived in mainland China, in the academic year 1982-3, I had just one magazine subscription coming in to my address in the remote Manchurian town where I lived. It was the London Spectator. How I looked forward to its weekly arrival! How I devoured its contents, like a thirsty man in a desert! How desperately I missed it if it was a day late! How doggedly I fought my way through the crossword (one of the tougher ones)! I can still remember whole articles. Now: what was in that Spectator issue that arrived yesterday? Er … And when was the last time I did a Spectator crossword? Um …

Great minds     Although, as a matter of fact, there was one piece in the current (so far as airmail subscribers are concerned) Spectator that got my attention. Regular Spectator contributor (and occasional NR contributor) Paul Johnson — yes, the Lancastrian Paul Johnson — chose this issue, the one dated November 24th, to write a column about singing: the pleasures of it, how people don't do it much any more but ought to … Now, I myself did a column on exactly this topic, even making some of the same points, for the Thanksgiving NRO Weekend. I wrote that piece on Friday, November 16th, and emailed it to the noble webmaster on the 17th. It appeared in public — that is, on the Web — on the afternoon of Wednesday 21st. I happen to know the Spectator's production cycle: Paul Johnson's piece would have had to be in final form by at very latest the afternoon of Tuesday the 20th, and would have shown up on London newsstands on Thursday the 22nd. There is thus no possibility of plagiarism by either of us. This is a pure case of "great minds think alike" … Or possibly evidence of an ocean-spanning Lancastrian super-mind, into whose rich and mysterious workings we individual Lancastrians are mere windows.

Is China a modern economy?     One more China comment. When I assert, as I frequently do, that you can't have a modern economy under dictatorship, a trickle of emails come in saying: "What about South Korea? What about Taiwan?"

What about them? Taiwan: I was working in the Credit department of a big Wall Street investment bank in the late 1980s. One day some very smart young men came along with a scheme for us to underwrite some commercial paper issues for Taiwan companies, a thing we had never done. (They wanted us to get into the Taiwan equity markets, too, but I forget the precise details.) We set our credit analysts to work looking at the fundamentals — ownership, earnings, management, legal enforcement, accounting practices — and after we'd read their reports, said: "Thanks, but no, thanks." You might think that Taiwan in the late stages of the Chiang-family dictatorship was a modern economy, but my bank sure as heck didn't think so, and making judgments of this sort was their business. South Korea: The 1997 crisis revealed very clearly that South Korea had, up to that point, been running a Soviet-style command economy, with all the CEOs of all major enterprises more or less government appointees. The result was that, after they had sucked all the blood out of their own banking system, they could not get any foreign bank to lend to them, and had to call in the IMF. Sorry, but that's not a modern economy.

Now, there is no doubt that a country can make great economic progress under a dictatorship. Hitler showed that, for heaven's sake. So, for that matter, did Stalin and his successors — Russians (well, urban Russians) were much better off in 1980 than they were in 1930. So was the Soviet economy a modern economy in 1980? Of course not.

Seven per cent annual economic growth doesn't mean you have a modern economy. It just means (in China's case) that you are starting from an extremely low base. A modern economy needs a firm rule of law, honest administration, honest justice, openness to foreign competition, well-regulated securities trading, and a host of other things that China has not got, and won't have until they get rid of those damn communists.

A report from Ground Zero     There has been, it seems to me, surprisingly little really first-class reporting from New York's "Ground Zero." Where are the products of all those schools of journalism that now infest the academic scene? Perhaps the magnitude of that horror is too much to be encompassed by journalists trained to sniff out the latest bogus health scare, political sex scandal, "racist" / "sexist" / "homophobic" outrage, or other inconsequential pseudo-news of the age that ended on September 11th.

Where really good reporting has come out, it has often been from unexpected and seriously un-famous quarters. There is an example in the current (December 2001) issue of Father Richard John Neuhaus's monthly First Things: a piece simply titled "Ground Zero: A Journal," by a writer completely unknown to me, name of Vincent Druding, bylined as "a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs in New York City," whatever that means. Whatever it means, Druding's beautiful and moving record of his Ground Zero experiences is one I feel sure I shall not be forgetting any time soon.