Fruitcake apocalypse. Whiny, pampered college students have their microaggressions. For the rest of us there are microsatisfactions and microdisappointments. Here's my microdisappointment of the Christmas season.
It's eccentric, I know, but I love fruitcake. I would eat those things all day long if not held back by nutritional common sense and a stern wifely eye. Thus constrained, I limit myself to one fruitcake per annum, at Christmas of course.
For many years I've been getting my fruitcakes on mail order from Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia. Around Thanksgiving I'd get their promotional booklet in the mail, with a form you could fill out to specify what goodies you wanted, in what quantities.
This past half-dozen years I haven't bothered with the form. When the booklet arrived I'd just phone in my order to a pleasantly monkish voice at the other end — Brother Ambrose or Brother Matthew — telling them to send the same cake they'd sent the previous year. I was what the retail trades call a regular.
Well, this year Thanksgiving came and went with no booklet from Holy Cross. Had I dropped off their mailing list somehow? I went to the Abbey's website.
Fruitcakes are NOT available for shipping! They can be purchased only by driving to the Holy Cross Abbey Gift Shop in Berryville, Virginia.
Do NOT call the monasteryfruitcake.org customer service number about fruitcakes as we CANNOT help you.
No more mail-order Monastery fruitcakes? What on earth had happened? Googling around, I found this, from the website of WAMU Radio.
Virginia Trappist Monks Grapple With Uncertain Future
Holy Cross was founded in 1950, in an elegant 18th-century house. Since then, Trappist monks have lived in the house —and the attached dormitory — in accordance with the Rule of Saint Benedict, a religious tradition established in the seventh century … living quiet lives of renunciation, simplicity and contemplation.
The monastery grew rapidly in its first 20 years, and at its height, it was home to 60 monks.
"We're down to what, 13 now, I think," says Brother Barnabas Brownsey. "So there's been quite an attrition."
But it isn't just the number of monks that's changed over the past 62 years; it's the age. The eldest monk, Brother Edward, is in his early 90s. Father Joseph, the youngest, is 55.
… … …
But while Holy Cross has a clear social problem — fewer potential monks, and older current monks — the traditionally self-supporting abbey also has its share of financial issues.
Because, let's face it: the market for fruitcake isn't what it used to be …
Darn it. I of course knew about the Sea of Faith's melancholy, long, withdrawing roar; I just never thought it would take my Christmas fruitcake with it down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world.
Star Wars — the tilm. Back when it first became clear that Star Wars was turning into a perpetual franchise — I'm talking about thirtysomething years ago — I was having a conversation about it with an English friend. What accounted for the huge success of such a low-grade product? I wondered.
He: It's a tilm.
Me: It's a what?
He: You remember how back in the seventies someone coined the word "bovie" — a book someone wrote with the sole intention of having it made into a movie?
Me: Oh, right. Like Jaws.
He: Exactly. Well, Star Wars is a tilm.
Me: Which is?
He: A film made with the sole intention of marketing a line of toys.
No offense to Star Wars fans — well, not much offense — but I think my pal got to the nub of it.
Muggeridge was a "character" in British literary and journalistic circles. By the time he left the planet in 1990 a whole apocrypha of stories had built up around him.
Here's a Muggeridge story that I have always thought one of the strangest of all literary anecdotes, which is saying a lot. I have copied it from the 1991 Memoirs of British novelist Kingsley Amis.
The place is London; the time, the early 1960s. Muggeridge was therefore about sixty years old; Amis not much past forty.
The two men had been involved all day in making a TV opinion program, of the kind that mostly involved participants sitting around in the green room chatting, drinking, and waiting to be called. Amis:
By evening I was past my best and beginning to think of getting back to Cambridge, where I was living at the time. At about this stage Malcolm suggested that we — he and I, as I supposed — should go out to dinner.
"I'm not sure that would be a good idea after what I've already had today."
"Nonsense, dear boy. There's the most charming girl who's dying to meet you."
"Oh really?" I had no girl available who would be ready to come out to dinner with me at a couple of hours' notice. The couple of hours was bad in another way too, because there was most of that amount of time to be filled in before dinner could, so to speak, be gone out to.
"That's very nice, but I honestly don't think I can manage it," I said.
"She's called Sonia Orwell." [I.e. widow of George, who had died in 1950.]
This changed things, I am not sure how or why. Assuring me that I should not be in the way, Malcolm went off with a nudge and a wink to call on the lady before the dinner rendezvous. I must have had another couple at the studio before, via one of those instantaneous journeys through the fourth dimension familiar to drunks, I arrived at the White Tower restaurant in Percy Street. I have no idea what happened there but it cannot have been so bad, because the next time I went the place admitted me without demur. I remember Sonia Orwell only as smallish and brownish, but I may have got the brown part from the fact that she was also somehow called Sonia Brownell. Perhaps when we were drinking our coffee I said,
"Now I definitely must be on my way."
"Rubbish, dear boy. We're off to Sonia's flat for a last drink."
By the time we got to the flat, wherever it was, I was still just about master of myself enough to realise that I was not going to get to Cambridge that night. I asked Malcolm to ring my number there and tell my wife this, trying to indicate that he should do so in the manner of a kindly friend saying the old boy seemed a bit too far gone to undertake the journey. Instead of anything of the sort he rapped out the bare statement that Mr Amis would not be returning to Cambridge that night in the manner of a station announcer and at once hung up, his mind doubtless on other things.
What these were became clearer when he went on to say, in a similar tone, "Come on, chaps, we're going to have an orgy."
From this point of view we were barely quorate, being just three strong. Malcolm said that since it was his idea he would go first and disappeared with Sonia Orwell (or Brownell) into what was presumably a bedroom. I picked up a copy of the New Statesman and began trying to read an article on the crisis in the Clyde shipbuilding industry, I think it was, though I am not sure. I abandoned the attempt after a time because of the extremely complicated and difficult, almost Joycean, style of the piece, which I remember thinking unsuitable where such a subject was concerned. Faint sounds could be heard now and then from the bedroom next door, but nothing to arouse particular interest.
After a time I had not tried to measure, Malcolm came back into the sitting-room. His manner had lost its earlier decisiveness. He said to me without much expression, "Afraid I couldn't manage anything in there. You go in and see what you can do."
I did as he asked. What followed calls for no description. It has, I very much hope, befallen virtually all men, sober as well as drunk, at some time in their lives. I said some of what has to be said on these occasions, about it being me and not her, etc., the sort of speech I suppose a great many women have heard and loathed and despised the speaker for and still felt awful because of, at some time in their lives. More time went by. Then Malcolm reappeared, all brisk and businesslike again. Taking in the situation at a glance, an easy task, he said,
"Come along, Kingsley, you've had quite long enough, stop hanging about. Get your trousers on and be ready to leave in two minutes." In some miraculous way he had put me in the wrong. "Get a move on now, we're off."
Book reviewing tips. I had to pull down my copy of Amis's Memoirs to get that anecdote. I hadn't opened the book for a decade or two, and had forgotten how quotable Amis was, though in a very British style. Sample:
I try to make it a rule, when reviewing a book by a known friend, to slip in one adverse remark. This might be compared to the habit of Arab artists and craftsmen of deliberately introducing an imperfection into their work so that they should not be thought to be trying to put themselves on a level with God. Alternatively it could be seen as the bit you put in to show that you and the other fellow are not buggering each other.
Reason versus History. There's an awful lot to know about an awful lot of things. We all have great blank, unexplored areas in our mental maps of the world.
In my case, for example, until this month: Danish history. In between King Canute and the Schleswig-Holstein Question I don't think there's a single fact about Danish history I could have told you until this month. Come to think of it I've only heard of Canute in the context of English history; and I only know about the Schleswig-Holstein Question from reading one of the Flashman novels.
Then in early December Mrs Derbyshire's selection for our Saturday night Netflix viewing was A Royal Affair, a 2012 made-in-Denmark historical drama about the court of Christian VII, who reigned 1766-1808.
Christian was, as they say in the construction trade, a few bricks short of a load. The precise nature of his mental abnormality has been much debated, but he was certainly unfit to rule.
In 1766 he married an English princess, Caroline. The IMDb web page for the movie summarises what followed.
A young queen, who is married to an insane king, falls secretly in love with her physician — and together they start a revolution that changes a nation forever.
That physician was Johann Struensee. He was an Enlightenment man, a reader of Voltaire, skeptical of the established order, which in Denmark was very established. He won the King's trust and the Queen's heart, then used his power to sideline the King's conservative ministers and push through a lot of social reforms. At last the ministers out-maneuvered him. He underwent a brisk capitectomy and the Queen was exiled.
The movie is, in short, a moral drama: stiff-necked, stone-faced reactionary ministers determined to maintain aristocratic and churchly privilege versus an enlightened reformer promoting peasants' rights, inoculation against smallpox, abolition of judicial torture, and so on.
All right, but is that what actually happened? The movie format lends itself all too easily to simplistic moral dramas, as the history of Hollywood abundantly shows; and the moral pointed in 99 percent of recent movies is one appealing to modern progressives. Did Christian VII's reactionary councillors have no case they could argue in their defence? Was Johann Struensee perhaps something less than a pure-hearted practitioner of reforming progressivism?
I went to my 1911 Britannica, the best quick lookup for this kind of thing. Struensee gets a good long article: 1,600 words.
He had gathered from various Danish friends, most of them involuntary exiles of doubtful character, that the crazy, old-fashioned Dano-Norwegian state, misruled by an idiot, was the fittest subject in the world for the experiments of a man of superior ingenuity like himself; and he proceeded to worm his way to power with considerable astuteness … He had made up his mind to regenerate the benighted Danish and Norwegian nations on purely abstract principles, without the slightest regard for native customs and predilections, which in his eyes were prejudices … The mere fact that a venerable institution still existed was a sufficient reason, in his eyes, for doing away with it. Changes which a prudent minister might have effected in a generation he rushed through in less than a fortnight … His system of retrenchment … was in the last degree immoral and hypocritical, for while reducing the number of the public officials, or clipping down their salaries to starvation points, he squandered thousands upon balls, masquerades, and other amusements of the court, and induced the imbecile king to present him and his friend Brandt with 60,000 rix-dollars apiece.
Ah, now I know where I am: In that dark zone where Reason clashes with History.
The Enlightenment was, overall, in my opinion, a Good Thing. For sure there were aspects of the old order that needed reform. The problem was that the worst person to carry out those reforms was an arrogant control-freak zealot like Struensee.
Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was a similar case slightly later. As illogical as the Danish kingdom may have been, it couldn't possibly have been as "crazy" and "old-fashioned" as the Holy Roman Empire, the all-time historical exemplar of a political entity that made no sense whatsoever — an insult to Reason.
He immediately directed his government on a new course, full speed ahead … to realize his ideal of a wise despotism acting on a definite system for the good of all … feverish activity … the promotion of unity by the compulsory use of the German language, everything which from the point of view of 18th-century philosophy appeared "reasonable" was undertaken at once. He strove for administrative unity with characteristic haste to reach results without preparation …
A bit later again the French Jacobins gave us the canonical example (at any rate until 1917) of Reason going mano a mano with History. That brought a quarter century of war punctuated by Napoleon crowning himself Emperor.
As quaint, illogical, and inefficient as old established ways may be, they give a secure and stable framework to the lives of ordinary people. Reforming them needs a surgeon's care, not the trampling zeal of a Struensee, a Joseph, or a Robespierre. Politics is not algebra.
Gadget of the month. The humble bidet has not attained very widespread acceptance in Anglo-Saxon cultures. The joke in England, once ordinary people started taking vacations on the Continent, used to be that the French — a malodorous race, according to the common English prejudice — washed one tiny part of their anatomy with utmost care but neglected the rest.
Modern electronics may finally bidet-iser les Anglo-Saxons. The functions of the bidet can now be incorporated in a toilet seat. I know this because I spent most of a December morning installing one of these, Mrs Derbyshire's Christmas gift to the family. (There's a fad for them in China, written up by The Economist back in March.)
The four main control panel buttons are marked HER BACK … HER FRONT … HIS BACK … DRYER. This left me with a couple of questions.
- What about HIS FRONT?
- Why separate buttons for HER BACK and HIS BACK? Isn't it, like, … in the same place?
So much to learn.
(A male friend with whom I raised these points asked whether they make that second button annoyingly difficult to locate.)
I can't share it. Both my parents came from coal-mining families in the West Midlands of England. I grew up hearing about coal mining from the point of view of the miners, though my relatives all said "colliers." The work was dirty, unhealthy, dangerous, and ill-paid. The colliers all hated it.
One of my earliest memories is of being presented by my mother to an adult male collier uncle. In my imagination I can see the coal dust in the creases of his face up close; but that is likely a later mental embellishment of the original memory.
Uncle Fred smiled down kindly at the infant Derb, then switched to a frown as he addressed my mother in his thick Staffordshire accent. "Yo'll not let this lad go down the pit, shall yo, ower Esther?"
My mother assured him she wouldn't. She kept her word, for which my gratitude is boundless.
A punchable face. One downside of Christmas in the New York area is the sight of Cardinal Dolan's smug, fat face in my New York Post and on local TV news programs. I never see that face without feeling a powerful urge to smash my fist into it.
No, the motive force here is not anti-Catholicism. I have confessed to owning some ancestral traces of that; but I called it "absurd" (and in the next sentence "doubly absurd"), which it is. I don't mind princes of the Church in the generality. If one of them — other than Dolan — were to stop by for tea, I'd be honored, and would accord him all proper respect.
Nor is it the major part that Catholic Charities plays in the very lucrative refugee resettlement rackets. Lutherans, Episcopalians, and a host of other Christian denominations are all milking that cow too, along with Jews and sundry ethnic lobbies. It would be unfair to single out Dolan for face-punching among so many other perps.
No: What makes me want to see Dolan's teeth fly is the way he treated one of his Church's most faithful and useful sons, Frank Borzellieri. I wrote up the Borzellieri case here, with a mention of the shameful part played by Dolan, and with links to Frank's own website and an interview he did with Jared Taylor.
The last time I spoke to Frank he was still a loyal RC congregant, with an admirably charitable, forgiving attitude to Dolan and his lackeys. Frank wouldn't agree with me about the fist-smashing.
That's OK, Frank. I'll take it on myself, and do the time in Purgatory without complaining.
As traditional when the year turns to new, the brainteaser challenge this month is to find something interesting to say about the number 2016.
And finally, to round off the year in humor, a math joke.
Q: What, if any, are the advantages for a mathematician of having Switzerland as nation of domicile?
A: Well, the flag's a big plus.