Posts Tagged 'kingsley amis'

A tinge of regret.

Ron Charles, Washington Post book critic, in an article I quoted already a couple weeks ago:

As Confederate statues tumble across the United States, TV networks are marching through their catalogues and looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon – more shocking with each new announcement. Just in recent weeks, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from The Office, Community, 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Saturday Night Live.

It would be interesting to time-travel back to the mid-2000s, when The Office, Community, 30 Rock, and Scrubs were still on the air, and inform their writers that in a decade or so their attempts at racial levity would be considered so “shocking” that they must be hidden away from sensitive viewers’ sight.

It would be more interesting still if we could summon a time traveller from ten years hence to tell us which of today’s critically-acclaimed, widely-beloved shows were destined for the scrapheap of “racially offensive” material. [1]

joey lawrence gimme a break

Joey Lawrence in Gimme A Break! Image source: Mediaite.

I recall as a child in the 1980s being confused by the episode of the sitcom Gimme A Break! where the teenage daughter, angry at her housekeeper and substitute mother-figure Nell Carter, took elaborate revenge by tricking her little brother into performing a blackface dance routine at Nell’s church. This led to Nell sitting the kids down for an earnest talk about racism.

I asked my babysitter to explain what the big deal was, but her answer wasn’t very coherent. I concluded that blackface was bad because it made nice black church ladies unhappy.

Nevertheless, it was routine in the 1980s, and for many years afterward, for white comedians to slap on brown makeup to impersonate Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder or Sammy Davis, just as they’d slap on sideburns and a fat suit for Elvis.

It didn’t occur to me – or, I’m pretty sure, the performers involved – that these impersonations would someday be damned as “blackface”. It’s only in the last decade or so that the new taboo against casting white people in non-white roles bumped up against the much older blackface taboo to retroactively toxify a whole swathe of previously innocent performances.

However, while the impersonators weren’t trying to be insulting, at least they weren’t specifically flaunting their racial enlightenment. The other category of “rediscovered” scenes newly targeted for removal we might call ironic blackface: scenes meant to illustrate the ignorance of white people who would participate in blackface, like the authoritarian weirdo Dwight Schrute in The Office, or the self-absorbed actress Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock, or the alcoholic dirtbags of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

(As a more recent example, there’s the Washington, D.C. woman who was publicly berated, and later lost her job, over a Halloween costume that mocked TV pundit Megyn Kelly for her comments about blackface.)

I enjoy many of the shows above. Still, I chuckle when I think of their hip, well-educated white writers sneering at their characters’ Neanderthal attitudes – only to find themselves tumbled into the cave with their creations.

Now, I try not to get too worked up about taboos. Every society has them, they’re usually not that hard to follow, and even the illogical ones may serve some important solidarity-building function. Some of us oldsters are having a bit of trouble adjusting to the new taboos because we grew up during an era where the old ones – like those against blasphemy, gay intimacy, and interracial relationships – were crumbling, while the new ones were still being applied in a moderate way. Everyone in the 1980s understood that you shouldn’t use “the n-word” as a racial slur, but nobody held it against you when you quoted a third party using it.

The blackface taboo hasn’t yet gone as far as the “n-word” taboo: as far as I can tell, no-one has gotten in trouble for merely publishing a photo of a person in blackface to illustrate a news article or blog post.

And yet if the mere sight of “the n-word” is triggering to the Woke, wouldn’t the photographs adorning the Wikipedia entry on blackface be equally triggering? For that matter, is it possible that the mere description of blackface could at some point in the not-too-very-distant future be made taboo?

Whipple and the white man.

rex stout too many cooks

In Rex Stout’s novel Too Many Cooks, from 1938, the gourmand private detective Nero Wolfe abandons the comforts of his New York home to attend a gathering of the world’s greatest chefs at a luxury hotel in rural West Virginia. Predictably, one of the chefs ends up with a carving knife in his back.

An eyewitness reports that she glimpsed one of the hotel’s black waiters standing near the alcove where the body was found, raising his finger to his lips, as if to shush another black waiter who was peering in from the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the witness can’t identify either waiter, so Wolfe assembles the whole serving staff in his hotel room for questioning. They are respectful but nervously uncooperative. The detective believes they are shielding the murderer out of racial solidarity:

“You are rendering your race a serious disservice. You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent. The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them. If in a question of murder you permit your action to be influenced by the complexion of the man who committed it, no matter whether you yourself are white or pink or black—”

“You’re wrong!”

The source of the interruption is a young waiter named Whipple, a college student who chafes at West Virginia’s racial etiquette; the headwaiter has already reprimanded him for not referring to Wolfe as “sir”.

Wolfe said, “I think I can justify my position, Mr. Whipple. If you’ll let me complete—”

“I don’t mean your position. You can have your logic. I mean your facts. One of them.”

Wolfe lifted his brows. “Which one?”

“The complexion of the murderer.” The college boy was looking him straight in the eye. “He wasn’t a black man. I saw him. He was a white man.”

…Or rather, at the time Whipple saw the man, he wasn’t precisely white:

“Do you think I can’t tell burnt cork from the real thing? I’m a black man myself. But that wasn’t all. As you said, he was holding his finger against his lips, and his hand was different. It wouldn’t have taken a black man to see that. He had on tight black gloves.”

Whipple explains to the skeptical Wolfe why he didn’t come clean earlier:

“Because I’ve learned not to mix up in the affairs of the superior race. If it had been a colored man I would have told. Colored men have got to stop disgracing their color and leave that to white men. You see how good your logic was.”

“But my dear sir. That doesn’t impugn my logic, it merely shows that you agree with me. We must discuss it some time. Then you withheld this fact because you considered it white men’s business and none of yours, and you knew if you divulged it you’d be making trouble for yourself.”

“Plenty of trouble. You’re a northerner—“

And indeed, Whipple’s reticence is justified by the local sheriff’s reaction – a string of racist insults and threats – when Wolfe brings him forward to share the story he’d previously concealed.

The ziggaboo jock.

It’s pretty clear that Nero Wolfe’s declaration that “The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded” reflected the views of his creator – civil libertarian, co-founder of the radical Vanguard Press, critic of the “myth of national sovereignty”, Rex Stout.

But Stout’s narrator, Wolfe’s regular-joe assistant Archie, is less ostentatiously enlightened: he sees no harm in jocularly referring to the hotel’s serving staff as “those blackbirds”. (His employer enquires whether “by blackbirds you mean men with dark skin”. Archie clarifies: “I mean Africans”.)

In the title story of Damon Runyon’s 1935 collection Money From Home, the unnamed narrator exercises a far more unrestrained vocabulary of racial slurs: “boogie”, “jig”, “smoke”, “smudge”, “dinge”, “coon”, and of course, “ziggaboo”. [2]

damon runyon omnibus

As the columnist Heywood Broun put it in the introduction to Runyon’s most famous book, Guys and Dolls:

He has caught with a high degree of insight the actual tone and phrase of the gangsters and racketeers of this town. Their talk is put down almost literally. Of course, like any artist, Damon Runyon has exercised the privilege of selectivity. But he has not heightened or burlesqued the speech of the people who come alive in his short stories.

Eddie Yokum, the hapless protagonist of “Money From Home”, by a series of unwise choices finds himself dressed in a stolen fox-hunting outfit, impersonating a visiting English aristocrat, and wanted by the law on a charge of dognapping.

Here he’s cowering in the furnace room of a snooty country club, wondering how to make his escape, when he remembers the time he knocked ’em dead in the Elks’ minstrel show with his imitations of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor:

The idea is to black up his face right there and walk out to safety, because Eddie figures that anybody who sees him is bound to take him as an employee of the furnace-room, so he peeks into the furnace, and finds a lot of soot, and he makes his face blacker than a yard up a chimney.

Moreover, Eddie gets another break when he finds a suit of blue overalls left by some guy who works in the furnace-room, and also an old cap, and when he sneaks out the door a little later, he is nothing but a boogie, as far as anybody can see, and not a very clean boogie, at that …

Unfortunately for Eddie, when he emerges from the furnace room he runs into the very Englishman he had been impersonating, who tipsily insists upon leading the black man onto the dance floor and “presenting him to the crowd as a bit of real Southern atmosphere”. So Eddie has no choice but to break out the minstrel act that brought him fame at the Elks’ Club.

Eventually Eddie bows his way offstage and makes his getaway. But his adventures aren’t over. Some days later, attending the big steeplechase at New York’s Belmont Park, with the hope of getting near the beautiful heiress whose charms got him into this whole mess in the first place, Eddie hears that his dream girl is in a pickle:

“There is a rumour that Miss Phyllis Richie’s nigger jockey, Roy Snakes, is off on a bender, or something to this effect. Anyway, they say he is missing, and if they cannot find him, or get another jig jock, they will have to scratch Follow You, because no white guy alive can ride Follow You in a race.”

It seems that Miss Richie’s enemies, knowing that her horse Follow You is a racist who will violently unseat any white rider who dares to mount him, have arranged for every black jockey in New York to be out of commission.

It occurs to Eddie that he can save the day, and win Miss Richie’s heart, with the help of some burnt cork :

Well, all the time Eddie Yokum is blacking up, he is saying every prayer he knows that Roy Snakes or one of the other dinge jockeys appears to ride Follow You, but no such thing happens, and by and by Eddie is out in the Richie colors, and is as black as anything, and maybe blacker, and while Follow You gives him quite a snuffing over when Eddie approaches him, the horse seems satisfied he is dealing with a smoke, and afterwards some people claim this is a knock to the way Eddie smells.

Having no experience as a rider, plus a severe fear of horses, Eddie falls off Follow You at every jump. But thanks to the treachery of their crooked jockeys, every other horse in the race is eventually disqualified, and despite Follow You’s growing exasperation at having to take every jump twice, the way is clear for him to win, if Eddie can just coax him over the finish line.

The trouble is that with all the sweat pouring down our hero’s brow, not to mention landing face-first in the water jump, he isn’t looking quite so black as when the race began, and the horse is starting to have his suspicions…

Blackface Bertie.

p.g. wodehouse thank you jeeves

When in P.G. Wodehouse’s 1933 novel Thank You, Jeeves Bertie Wooster finds it necessary to disguise himself as a black man, the urgency of the situation rules out the burning of cork. Luckily Bertie’s unflappable valet has had the foresight to bring along a tin of boot polish:

“The scheme carries your personal guarantee?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you say you have the stuff handy?”

“Yes, sir.”

I flung myself into a chair and turned the features ceilingwards.

“Then start smearing, Jeeves,” I said, “and continue to smear till your trained senses tell you that you have smeared enough.”

The chain of events leading up to this crisis begins with Bertie, ejected from his London flat over banjolele-related noise complaints, taking a cottage on the estate of his old school chum, the cash-poor Baron Chuffnell, AKA Chuffy. Part of the attraction of this locale is the presence of a troupe of coloured minstrels in the nearby village, who, Bertie hopes, might be induced to impart banjolele tips.

The local police sergeant takes a jaundiced view of these entertainers:

“Chuffnell Regis is going down. I would never have thought to have seen a troupe of minstrels singing comic songs within a stone’s-throw of my police station.”

“You view them with concern?”

“There’s been fowls missing,” said Sergeant Voules darkly. “Several fowls. And I have my suspicions.”

Meanwhile Chuffy is attempting to unload Chuffnell Hall on a rich American in order to acquire the funds to marry said American’s daughter, Pauline – who is, as it happens, Bertie’s ex-fiancée. Misunderstandings ensue, culminating in Bertie’s imprisonment on the rich American’s yacht, threatened with forced marriage to Pauline. Luckily the minstrels happen to be aboard the yacht to provide entertainment at a birthday party, and Jeeves devises his scheme to sneak Bertie ashore amid their number.

The plan goes off without a hitch, as Jeeves’ plans generally do, and Bertie flits to pack for the next train to London, leaving his man behind to cover the traces of his escape. Alas, before he can acquire the necessary butter to remove the boot polish from his face, Bertie is chased from his own cottage by a drunken servant who mistakes the black-faced intruder for the devil. Later, at the service entrance to Chuffnell Hall, a scullery maid falls into a fit upon seeing him, believing him to be a spirit that she has summoned with her Ouija board.

Hunted and friendless, wondering where he can scrounge a supply of butter, Bertie skulks among the bushes, reflecting that,

I had never realized before what an important part one’s complexion plays in life.

As Martin Amis once wrote of the comic gauntlet of “bust-ups, alarms, duplicities and misapprehensions” with which Wodehouse’s upper class twits must contend:

The fact that these pitfalls, when translated to the burly contingencies of real life, can cause genuine hurts and fears merely strengthens the glow of innocuousness. Wodehouse loved to play on the genial insensitivity to suffering that centuries of thoughtless privilege produce. [3]

Innocent and insolent.

Martin Amis’ father Kingsley once anointed G.K. Chesterton’s amiable amateur sleuth Father Brown as one of the “three great successors of Sherlock Holmes”. (Nero Wolfe was another.) [4]

If the Father Brown stories had a weakness, Amis went on, it was not, as some critics had complained, that they were “Roman Catholic propaganda”:

It would be truer to say that what propaganda there is gets directed against atheism, complacent rationalism, occultism and superstition, all those shabby growths which the decline of Christian belief has fostered … My only real complaint is that this bias sometimes reveals the villain too early. We know at once that the prophet of a new sun cult is up to no good, and are not surprised that it is he who allows a blind girl to step to her death in an empty lift shaft. [5]

Atheists and non-Christians of various stripes might legitimately complain that Chesterton has treated them unfairly. But only one of the Father Brown stories strikes me as genuinely offensive (and we’ve established by now that I’m not all that easy to offend).

g.k. chesterton the wisdom of father brown

“The God of the Gongs”, from the 1914 collection The Wisdom of Father Brown, begins with the little priest and his brawny friend Flambeau strolling on a bleak winter day along the abandoned strand of an English seaside town. In apparent idleness Father Brown hops onto the stage of a wooden bandstand, and promptly falls through a rotten spot in the floor. Exploring the dark spaces beneath, he stumbles on something disturbing – a corpse, we deduce, though he is characteristically vague in explaining his discovery to Flambeau.

Next he steers his friend to a nearby inn, where the proprietor is curiously inhospitable to his guests, and even more curiously deferential to his bellowing black cook. Flambeau takes an instant dislike to this cook, who is also the famed prizefighter “Nigger Ned”, on his way to a bout:

He was buttoned and buckled up to his bursting eyeballs in the most brilliant fashion. A tall black hat was tilted on his broad black head … The red flower stood up in his buttonhole aggressively, as if it had suddenly grown there. And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude—an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent—the cake walk.

“Sometimes,” said Flambeau, looking after him, “I’m not surprised that they lynch them.”

“I am never surprised,” said Father Brown, “at any work of hell.”

In another Chesterton story, when a hot-tempered Arab is accused of killing an Englishman who had insulted him, the clear-sighted Father Brown recognizes that it is another Englishman who has opportunistically pinned the crime on the foreigner. [6] Encountering the foppish prizefighter for the first time, we assume that he is likewise going to be a red herring; especially when the hotel proprietor whips out a dagger and attempts to murder Father Brown.

But no: like the suspicious sun-cultist mentioned by Amis, the insolent black man is in fact up to no good. Escaping the homicidal innkeeper, Father Brown and Flambeau make their way to the site of the prizefight, where the priest approaches the promoter and explains (with reference to a “book of old travels” which he happens to have in his pocket, describing certain obscure Jamaican folkways) that his star attraction is the chief priest of a secret society of voodoo assassins, and the boxing match the diversion during which one of their ritual killings will occur.

With his secret society exposed, “Nigger Ned” vanishes, leading to a countrywide manhunt that makes no concessions to our notions of civil liberties:

[F]or a month or two the main purpose of the British Empire was to prevent the buck nigger (who was so in both senses) escaping by any English port. Persons of a figure remotely reconcilable with his were subjected to quite extraordinary inquisitions, made to scrub their faces before going on board ship, as if each white complexion were made up like a mask of greasepaint. Every negro in England was put under special regulations and made to report himself; the outgoing ships would no more have taken a nigger than a basilisk.

(No doubt many reader will be puzzled, as I was, by Chesterton’s reference to “both senses” of the phrase “buck nigger”. My Webster’s informs me that in addition to meaning a “bold, lively, vigorous” young man – “sometimes a contemptuous or patronizing term as applied to a young black or Indian male” – “buck” has an archaic second meaning of “fop or dandy”.)

Modern opinion would find the many instances of “the n-word” the most alarming aspect of this story, but my impression is that in Britain the word was accepted in polite society for some years after it had become taboo in the United States: Chesterton uses it more or less as an informal synonym for “negro”, much as he might use “Yankee” for “American”.

What troubles me is that Chesterton seems not to balk at the racist methods he ascribes to the police in hunting up the escaped cult leader. Ordinarily we can rely on Father Brown to pass some acerbic little remark when the people around him are behaving irrationally, but for once, he lets the hysteria pass uncommented on.

In the final lines of the tale, Father Brown and Flambeau are once again dallying near the beach, wondering that the fugitive cult leader hasn’t yet turned up.

“He must be still in England,” observed Flambeau, “and horridly well hidden, too. They must have found him at the ports if he had only whitened his face.”

“You see, he is really a clever man,” said Father Brown apologetically. “And I’m sure he wouldn’t whiten his face.”

“Well, but what would he do?”

“I think,” said Father Brown, “he would blacken his face.”

And he gestures meaningfully in the direction of “the soot-masked niggers singing on the sands”.

The blackface Diggers.

joan didion slouching towards bethlehem

In Joan Didion’s 1967 account of life among the San Francisco hippies, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, we make the acquaintance of the Diggers, a loose alliance of radical organizations that includes the San Francisco Mime Troupe. [7]

The Digger crowd are standoffish to Didion, on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post, because they see mainstream journalists as their enemies. One of their leaders asks her, “How much you get paid for doing this kind of media poisoning?” Another interviewee, Mime Troupe writer and director Peter Berg, blames her “for the way Life captioned Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures out of Cuba”.

Didion describes a bunch of Diggers and Mime Troupers showing up at a San Francisco park one afternoon where Janis Joplin is giving a free concert. They’re there to freak out the mellow hippies:

I mention to Max and Sharon that some members of the Mime Troupe seem to be in blackface.

“It’s street theater,” Sharon assures me. “It’s supposed to be really groovy.”

The Mime Troupers get a little closer, and there are some other peculiar things about them. For one thing they are tapping people on the head with dime-store plastic nightsticks, and for another they are wearing signs on their backs. “HOW MANY TIMES YOU BEEN RAPED, YOU LOVE FREAKS?” and “WHO STOLE CHUCK BERRY’S MUSIC?”, things like that. […]

I walk over to where the Mime Troupers have formed a circle around a Negro. Peter Berg is saying if anybody asks that this is street theater, and I figure the curtain is up because what they are doing right now is jabbing the Negro with the nightsticks. They jab, and they bare their teeth, and they rock on the balls of their feet and they wait.

“I’m beginning to get annoyed here,” the Negro says. “I’m gonna get mad.”

By now there are several Negroes around, reading the signs and watching.

“Just beginning to get annoyed, are you?” one of the Mime Troupers says. “Don’t you think it’s about time?”

“Nobody stole Chuck Berry’s music, man,” says another Negro who has been studying the signs. “Chuck Berry’s music belongs to everybody.”

“Yeh?” a girl in blackface says. “Everybody who?”

“Why,” he says, confused. “Everybody. In America.”

“In America,” the blackface girl shrieks. “Listen to him talk about America.”

“Listen,” he says. “Listen here.”

“What’d America ever do for you?” the girl in blackface jeers. “White kids here, they can sit in the Park all summer long, listening to the music they stole, because their bigshot parents keep sending them money. Who ever sends you money?”

“Listen,” the Negro says helplessly. “You’re gonna start something here, this isn’t right—”

“You tell us what’s right, black boy,” the girl says.

The youngest member of the blackface group, an earnest tall kid about nineteen, twenty, is hanging back at the edge of the scene. I offer him an apple and ask what is going on. “Well,” he says, “I’m new at this, I’m just beginning to study it, but you see the capitalists are taking over the District, and that’s what Peter—well, ask Peter.”

Maybe the Diggers were right to accuse Didion of “media poisoning”. She paints the Mime Troupers as slightly sinister idiots, ruining the afternoon’s good vibes in the name of some half-baked idea of social action they can’t even articulate.

Was this fair? The 1968 documentary Have You Heard of the San Francisco Mime Troupe? (viewable, for now at least, on YouTube and at The Digger Archives) provides a pretty thorough immersion in the Digger milieu – almost an hour of interviews, rehearsal footage, and dimestore political theorizing. To me they seem no more crazily ideological than your typical 2020 arts crowd, although of course that’s largely a product of the Diggers’ crazy ideology having gone thoroughly mainstream in the intervening half-century.

The documentary includes long excerpts from the Mime Troupe’s touring blackface production A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel – “an outspoken comment on the black man’s condition in America”, per the narrator. (These excerpts begin around 24:40 and continue at intervals until the end of the doc.) We see the minstrels jokily interacting with audience members – white and black – in ways consistent with what Didion describes. Everyone seems pretty chill about it.

san francisco mime troupe minstrel show

Minstrel and audience members in A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel. Source: The Digger Archives.

Putting aside the blackface, the play is extremely relevant to contemporary progressive obsessions: it culminates in the killing of a “black” man by a “white” cop (both portrayed by actors in blackface). Modern anti-racists might find it instructive to see how their grandparents’ generation dealt with the theme – if they could make it through the video without falling to pieces at the sight of six actors (some white, some black) clowning in blackface. They might find themselves agreeing with the reactionary squares whom Peter Berg, in a 1966 letter to Educational Theatre News, blasted for censoring his show:

A Minstrel Show was blacked-out in mid-performance by officials of Olympia College in Washington because of “unsuitability” of its material. The student body audience was loudly divided about the administration’s heavy-handed censorship, and the Minstrel cast called from the stage for a vote. Officials refused, then compounded their Dark Ages policy by clearing the theatre of students and performers.

One of the stars of A Minstrel Show, Peter Cohon, went on to fame as the Hollywood actor Peter Coyote, best known for E.T. You can hear him in the documentary trying to explain what the Mime Troupe had in mind:

When I started in the show, it was like embarrassing, wow. It’s hard to put blackface on your face and be there with three white cats and three black cats in the cast, and you’re making fun of each other, and you gotta be pretty sure where you stand. And you can’t just give lip service to it. Um, before you can swing behind it, you really gotta work some stuff out.

Coyote’s black co-star Jason Marc Alexander, his face half obscured by black greasepaint, adds in a backstage interview:

The way I figure it is, there’s really no-one else saying what we’re saying in the way we’re saying it. We still are dealing with a very old, ugly problem. … And I dunno, I just get the feeling like, uh, this country has done so much running away from itself that it’s going to wind up just going into a circle, just a circle of madness, until it finally, just, flip totally out. Cause there’s so many things we’re trying to pretend aren’t there. And we all know they are.

Which reminds me a bit of something Father Brown says in another Chesterton story:

“And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it.” [8]

M.

1. I put in my customary couple hours of half-assed research preparing to write this essay. The two books I skimmed, W.T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain: Blackface Performance From Jim Crow to Hip Hop, from 1998, and John Strausbaugh’s Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture, from 2006, probably couldn’t be published today: not only because both authors are white, but because they offer a more nuanced, even sympathetic, analysis of blackface than is currently acceptable.

2. While Rex Stout’s political commitments were openly worn, I’m less sure about Damon Runyon’s. If I’ve correctly decoded the heavy irony in this 1946 installment of his weekly newspaper column – which takes the form of a scathing review of one of his own books – he was a conventional FDR-era liberal, which would of course make him a Nazi deserving of punching, by 2020 standards.

3. From a 1978 review of Wodehouse’s unfinished final novel, Sunset at Blandings, in Martin Amis’ collection The War Against Cliché.

4. The third great successor of Sherlock Holmes, per Kingsley Amis, was John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell, with whose adventures I am unacquainted. Amis praises Carr for carrying on in Chesterton’s romantic tradition, but with “the wilder flights of fancy brought under control, the holes in the plot conscientiously plastered over and made good.”

5. This essay, “Unreal Policeman”, is in Amis’ 1970 collection What Became of Jane Austen? The story with the sun cult is “The Eye of Apollo”, from The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911.

6. The hot-tempered Arab is in “The Quick One”, from The Scandal of Father Brown, 1935.

7. The text of Didion’s article that appears at the Saturday Evening Post website is slightly different than the version that appears in my copy of her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

8. The final Chesterton quote is from “The Purple Wig” in The Wisdom of Father Brown.

I’ve left out of this catalogue of 20th century blackface literature John Howard Griffin’s classic book of undercover investigative reporting, Black Like Me, which I discussed in 2010. Also that year I quoted Joan Didion in a review of Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape. I referred to a different Nero Wolfe story in my 2017 musings on coarse-grained versus fine-grained fiction.

The rectification of names.

The Chinese government seems to have been successful in its campaign to guilt us into replacing the logical, easy-to-remember “Wuhan virus” with the turgid, clinical “Covid-19”.

Apart from everything else, it strikes me as a blown marketing opportunity for the city of Wuhan. When international travel picks up again, western tourists who would otherwise hop straight from the Great Wall to the giant panda sanctuary at Chengdu might be convinced to add a stop at Wuhan Virusland. The mascot could be a pangolin wearing a surgical mask. Ozzy Osbourne could star in a promotional video where he dips into a bowl of delicious bat soup.

But if Beijing has its way, in a year or two Wuhan – that insignificant provincial town, home to a mere nine million souls – will recede into the obscurity it enjoyed before the virus made it briefly famous.

We in the west are pretty clueless about Chinese geography. It’s partly because China was closed to the outside world for 30 years, partly because their language looks so forbiddingly strange, and partly because, in a test-run of the Wuhan/Covid guilt trip, we went meekly along with their decree that we should junk our old, familiar names for their towns and provinces and replace them with hard-to-pronounce Chinese versions – so Tsingtao became Qingdao, Canton became Guangzhou, Amoy became Xiamen, and so on.

(In his 1988 travel book Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux is corrected by a government flunky when he refers to Peking and Canton. “I’m giving you their English names, Mr. Zhong,” he replies. “We don’t say Hellas for Greece, or Roma for Rome, or Paree, if we’re speaking English. So I don’t see the point–” But the flunky smoothly changes the subject.) [1]

Speaking of under-publicized tourist destinations, Zhengzhou is another huge city – almost six million people – that I couldn’t have placed on a map before the other day. That’s probably why I was unaware of this monument to the ancient semi-mythical emperor-heroes Huang and Yan carved into a mountain outside of town. Their faces are three times as big as the ones at Mount Rushmore.

Meanwhile in Changsha (population five million) there’s an oddly sexy 100-foot-tall bust of Mao Zedong. Or if you like your colossi a little shaggier, the 1200 year old giant Buddha statue near Leshan (a quaint village of 1.2 million) gives a preview of how Mao will look in a millennium or so, when the elements have done their work.

I was watching The Neverending Story with a friend a while back and when I saw the Ivory Tower – the fortress sprouting like a pistil from the shell of a hollowed-out mountain – I said, “How come our multibillionaires all live in boring suburban mega-mansions when they could be using their fortunes to erect cool fantasy architecture like that?”

But even if Jeff Bezos yearned to live in a hollowed-out mountain, he would never get away with it. For that matter, Mount Rushmore wouldn’t get the go-ahead nowadays. The local Native Americans would raise a fuss, protesters would converge, lawsuits would be launched, and after a few years the whole thing would be quietly dropped, as happened to that “grandiose” (actually, by Chinese standards, rather understated) statue of “Mother Canada” the Tories were talking about building in Cape Breton.

The Chinese, poor rubes, lack the sophistication to realize that enormous monuments to their heroes and heritage are gaudy and wasteful, and that developed countries have more important things to spend their money on, such as…wait a second, what are we spending our money on? Our infrastructure is rickety and inadequate. Our streets are full of homeless drug addicts. Our homes are full of cheap made-in-China crapola. Is it possible that all our extra wealth is going into inflated university degrees and pipeline litigation?

***

Ever since I moved to Vancouver from the Canadian prairies, I’ve had the vague intention of learning a little Chinese. Not enough to actually talk to people – I figure that’s unrealistically ambitious – but maybe enough to make out the gist of signs outside the many local Chinese businesses.

As I understand it – and I’m aware this is a gross oversimplification – Chinese characters, or hanzi, are built from ideograms representing ideas rather than sounds. Two quick strokes make a person; a few extra strokes denote a woman; two women side-by-side, hilariously, represent a quarrel. The concept of “big” is communicated by a little man, arms thrown wide, going “it’s this big!

Thus speakers of mutually unintelligible Chinese languages – Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, etc. – can still communicate by scrawling characters on a piece of paper. Chinese travellers in Japan and Korea can also get along, to some degree, without knowing the local languages because hanzi (or kanji, or hanja) form part of the Japanese and Korean writing systems.

I’ve heard mixed reports as to whether Chinese languages are especially difficult for westerners to learn. I assume they are: on top of the usual challenges of learning a foreign A) vocabulary and B) grammar, you’ve also got C) a completely alien tone system and D) at a bare minimum, a few hundred non-phonetic characters to memorize.

Maybe if your goal is to become a fluent Chinese speaker you need to learn A, B, C, and D together. But I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t be useful to disaggregate the various off-putting features of learning Chinese. Maybe you could, for instance, acquire a basic vocabulary without worrying about tones.

Consider English: every word has a stress that falls on one syllable or other, sometimes according to a predictable rule but often not. We say “AUTomobile”, “autoMOtive”, and “auTOMoton”, which is just something foreigners have to learn – but we can still understand those words if all the syllables are stressed equally, even if the result sounds funny and robotic to us.

The go-to example for the Chinese tone system is the sound “ma”, which in Mandarin can mean “mother”, “horse”, “hemp”, and “scold”, depending which tone is used. But those are pretty distinct concepts – couldn’t the listener figure out by context which is intended, the same way we do with “be” and “bee”, or “high” and “hi”?

This Mandarin language teacher pretty much concedes my point:

[B]elieve it or not, people can mostly understand when foreigners speak without tones. Why? Because of context.

But before you become tempted to take this “shortcut” yourself…don’t! It’s a big mistake! You see, even though people might still be able to understand you if you don’t use tones, it’s not accurate Chinese. And the other person may have to try much harder to catch what you’re trying to say.

You’re basically limiting yourself to “complete beginner”.

But if “complete beginner” is all you’re aiming for – why not? There are a lot of people who, like me, might be interested in acquiring just a smattering of Chinese, who would be happy to take this shortcut if they knew it existed.

Likewise, maybe it would be useful to learn Chinese characters without learning a word of Chinese. Maybe we could absorb a limited set of hanzi into our language, which we could use to communicate across language barriers not only with Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, but with Germans, Russians, Indonesians, and so forth.

You might say, why import a bunch of antique, abstract, overly complicated ideograms from a foreign country? Why not devise a brand new set of simple, rational ideograms of our own?

Well, consider the fate of Blissymbolics, the hanzi-inspired, hyperrational universal language invented by a disillusioned Eastern European Jew during World War II. (It was introduced in a book called Semantography: A Logical Writing for an Illogical World.) Blissymbolics caught on in a limited way as a method of teaching writing to handicapped kids in Canada, and nowhere else.

blissymbolics charles bliss

From The Book to the Film “Mr. Symbol Man”, by Charles K. Bliss. Image source. You can watch Mr. Symbol Man on YouTube.

That’s how it goes with a constructed language: absent a pre-existing population of speakers and a pre-existing body of texts, there’s little reason, apart from ideological enthusiasm, to learn it. With no-one to talk to and nothing worth reading, students grow bored and chuck it over. Whereas with Chinese you can just take the bus down Kingsway and every third or fourth storefront will present a new opportunity to test your vocabulary.

If our descendants ever do wind up adopting hanzi into the English language, it won’t be through the efforts of armchair theorizers like me. Attempts to benevolently direct linguistic evolution tend to backfire. For instance, the Chinese government “simplified” their writing system in the 1950s, reducing the number of pen strokes needed to draw many common hanzi. But in Hong Kong and Taiwan they ignored these directives, so that now many readers of “simplified” Chinese have trouble reading the “traditional” forms, and vice versa. Meanwhile the Japanese adopted some, but not all, of the simplified forms. (See also.)

This reminds me of the various ineffective attempts to preserve Canada’s endangered aboriginal languages. I can appreciate that aboriginal people would like to hang onto those languages. I think it’s a laudable goal. But to take a local example, there are 14 different Coast Salish dialects on or near the southern BC / Washington coast, distributed over an area smaller than Ireland. (The modern convention is to call them “languages”, but it seems that adjacent tribes could understand one another, though more distant ones couldn’t.)

squamish language road sign

The “7” stands for the number of people who can actually read this. Image source.

Left unmolested by Europeans, a single dominant dialect would eventually have emerged – or maybe the Coast Salish would have been conquered by some other, more unified tribe and had an alien language imposed on them, as happened to the Irish.

My point being, in my imaginary Coast Salish Republic, there’d still be at least 13 dialects regrettably falling into disuse, with old-timers in the sticks grousing that their grandkids didn’t know the words to the old folk songs anymore. But Coast Salish as a whole would stand a chance of survival. It would have enough speakers to sustain newspapers, a publishing industry, radio, TV, and so on.

My further point being, if there’s any chance of preserving Coast Salish now that its surviving dialects are mumbled by a handful of codgers each – it will be by picking one. But then, how do you get the 14 or more Coast Salish-speaking communities to agree to a strategy that involves 13 of them euthanizing an essential part of their culture for the good of the rest?

M.

1. Re Peking/Beijing, Kingsley Amis grumbled in The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, under the heading “Didacticism”:

[T]hat right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion. Peking was an English word for centuries before it was suddenly replaced by Beijing, however you pronounce it; Ceylon has notoriously been replaced by Sri Lanka; Lyons has reverted to Lyon (Lee-on(g)) and Marseilles (pronounced Marsails) to Marseille (MarSAY, often with an attempt at the French uvular trill in the middle); Seville and Genoa have come a step nearer being pronounced in the native fashion. What about Brussels and Brussels? Ah, that I predict will go on as before. The British/English form conveniently steers between Bruxelles and Brüssel, the Walloon and Flemish versions of the name of the Belgian capital.

Mark Steyn once referred to this trend as “the reflexive multicultural cringe that automatically assumes any new, less familiar (and thus less ‘western’) name must be more ‘authentic'”.

 

Epshtine, Bernsteen, Volfervitz.

As I write this, the results of the British election are rolling in. The question of Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism will soon be falling off the front pages and down into the depths of the international section, where the two-paragraph dispatches from Burma and Bougainville languish unread.

Having paid little attention to the campaign, it was only today that I learned of one of the more trivial flurries of indignation stirred up by Corbyn’s clumsiness. In the leaders’ debate, when asked about Prince Andrew’s friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Corbyn pronounced his name as “Epshtine” – in order, claimed his critics, “to emphasise the fact Epstein was Jewish”. To quote a Twitter user named Catherine Lenson:

I’ve seen people call it a microaggression. But this is no microaggression. This is a deliberate provocation. This [is] a man showing his truest colours. It’s taunting. This is racism, pure and simple. And we see it.

I make no claims to knowing what is in Corbyn’s mind. But I’m inclined to judge his gaffe forgivingly, as I do the unnamed BBC interviewers accused by Christopher Hitchens (in his memoir Hitch-22) of microaggressing against his friend Paul Wolfowitz – or, as the name came out after they’d put their “sinister top-spin” on it, “Volfervitz”:

How hard could it be, I would inquire icily … to pronounce the name phonetically or as it was spelled? “Oh all right,” one of them said grudgingly: “this fellow Wolfervitz who seems to be the power behind the scenes, with his neo-con cabal…” I made him stop and begin all over again.

I’ve referred to this anecdote before. As I wrote then:

This might have been, as Hitchens believed, a “clumsy innuendo” on Wolfowitz’s Jewishness; or it might merely have been a misplaced straining for cultural sensitivity. (Compare for instance the German-born composer Kurt Weill who, after moving to the States, was annoyed by Americans who took the trouble to pronounce his name in the German fashion rather than, as he preferred, anglicizing it to “Curt While”.)

That’s from my June essay on Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who was frequently irritated when people, including President Kennedy, referred to him as “Diefenbawker”. Most of these incidents were innocent mistakes; some of them, in the earlier part of his career when the war was fresh in people’s minds, may have been deliberate attempts to draw attention to Dief’s German background.

Diefenbaker was in turn accused by the journalist Peter C. Newman, whom he detested for reporting critically about his government, of antisemitically mispronouncing his name as “Kneeman” or “Noyman”. Newman claimed that Dief would go further in private and refer to him outright as “that Viennese Jew”. I can’t find any independent source for these claims; they certainly contradict Dief’s carefully cultivated reputation as a combatter of racial prejudice.

Catherine Lenson, in the Twitter thread linked above, links to an old William Safire column that lists the composer Leonard Bernstein among the famous Jews who pronounced their last name steen. But Safire was mistaken – as I knew already. [1] When I heard of the “Epshtine” flap, I immediately thought of Radical Chic, Tom Wolfe’s hilarious account of a 1970 cocktail party hosted by Bernstein and his wife to raise funds for the Black Panthers. Bernstein was known for boisterously correcting anyone who got his name wrong, for instance when the Panthers’ lawyer rose to thank “Mrs. Bernsteen” for her hospitality:

“STEIN!”–a great smoke-cured voice booming out from the rear of the room! It’s Lenny! … For years, twenty at the least, Lenny has insisted on -stein not -steen, as if to say, I am not one of those 1921 Jews who try to tone down their Jewishness by watering their names down with a bad soft English pronunciation.

tom wolfe radical chic

Re-reading Radical Chic reminds us that Corbyn isn’t the first leftist to be stymied by the impossibility of reconciling the interests of well-to-do Jewish liberals on one side and angry proletarians on the other. Wolfe depicts the Bernsteins’ elite set nodding along as Black Panther “Field Marshal” Don Cox declares the United States to be “the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world”. But there are stirrings of unease when Cox refers to the “donations” his party receives from “exploiters of the black community”, i.e., small business owners:

For God’s sake, Cox, don’t open that can of worms. Even in this bunch of upholstered skulls there are people who can figure out just who those merchants are, what group, and just how they are asked for donations, and we’ve been free of that little issue all evening, man–don’t bring out that ball-breaker–

The film director Otto Preminger pipes up with some impertinent questions about Israel, which the Panther delegation would prefer to avoid discussing. Later, when the New York Times prints an article about the soirée (a term Bernstein resents; it was merely a “meeting”, he says) which quotes the composer replying “I dig it!” to some of his guests’ more uncompromising assertions, the backlash from his fellow Jews is so disconcerting that he is forced to issue a public statement clarifying his position. While he supports the Panthers’ right to freedom of speech and assembly, Bernstein explains,

it is reasonably clear that they are advocating violence against their fellow citizens, the downfall of Israel, the support of Al Fatah and other similarly dangerous and ill-conceived pursuits. To all of these concepts I am vigorously opposed and will fight against them as hard as I can.

Bernstein stumbled trying to negotiate what Wolfe called “the delicious status contradictions and incongruities that provide much of the electricity for Radical Chic”. But Bernstein had to go well out of his way to make such an ass of himself. Fifty years later, we all live permanently in that electrified realm, risking a shock every time we utter an unfamiliar name. Which is the safer bet: stein (which looks like you’re drawing attention to the name’s Jewishness) or steen (which would imply that the anglicized version is somehow normative)? Either way you run the risk of being accused of “othering” someone.

My suspicion is that the people who say “Volfervitz” or “Epshtine” or for that matter “Bern-STEIN!” are the same ones who go overboard on the pronunciation of foreign place names like Budapesht and Ibeetha and Lesootoo, refer to Iranians as Ee-rawn-ians, and correct you if you refer to Bombay or Canton. [2] In Kingsley Amis’s unforgettable formulation, these people would be overly pedantic “wankers”, as distinguished from “berks” who mispronounce things out of ignorance. I’m attentive to this division because I have to work hard to suppress my own wankerish tendencies.

Incidentally, until learning about the “Epshtine” controversy today, I had no idea whether Epstein was a steener or a steiner. Going by Jeremy Corbyn’s beard and demeanour, I suspect that he, like me, gets most of his news from printed matter rather than from TV or online videos; it’s possible therefore that when he first saw Epstein’s name he wankerishly defaulted to the more foreign-sounding, ergo “authentic” pronunciation, and his flunkies never bothered to correct him.

M.

1. You can put your trust in Michael Stipe.

2. A friend reports that she was told by an Australian expatriate that the “correct” pronunciation of Melbourne is “Melbin”. I guess we Canadians could begin insisting on “Tronna”, but we’re too polite. We’re happy when someone gets Saskatchewan more or less right.

A couple months back I shrugged at the results of the Canadian election. Last year in a post on immigration I referred to an Anti-Defamation League study on the global distribution of antisemitic beliefs. Way back in 2009 I discussed Jewish overrepresentation in Hollywood.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

John Diefenbaker’s One Canada.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s memoir One Canada was published in three volumes between 1975 and 1977. My boxed set was inscribed to me by the ex-PM on April 8th, 1979, when he was in negotiations with my father to narrate a series of radio vignettes about famous Native Canadians. I wasn’t present; I had just turned three. Diefenbaker died that summer, putting an end to the idea.

I wrote a couple years back about my “dad books” – the ten to twenty percent of my library that I inherited from my father and have kept around less out of enthusiasm than out of a sense of filial duty. The three volumes of One Canada were my last unread dad books. Politicians’ memoirs are not a genre of particular interest to me.

However, I feel a personal connection to Diefenbaker, not only through his slight acquaintance with my father but because of my Saskatchewan upbringing. I grew up in Prince Albert, the town where Diefenbaker settled in the 1920s and which he represented in parliament from 1952 until the end of his life. Many of the minor figures mentioned in the first volume of One Canada I recognize from the names of streets and civic buildings in Prince Albert and Saskatoon. From grade three to seven I attended John Diefenbaker School. On visits home I fly into Diefenbaker International Airport.

As for his politics, before reading his memoir I knew three things about Diefenbaker’s career:

  1. That his government had extended to all adult Native Canadians the right to vote. (Which is why he was a logical choice to narrate those radio vignettes. I’m sure my father also would’ve found some way to work in Diefenbaker’s nickname, The Chief.)
  2. That at the peak of Cold War nuclear tensions, his government had initiated a program of civil defence that involved mobilizing the Canadian Militia (known today as the Army Reserve), of which my father was, as a young man, a member. This program’s most, ahem, concrete result was the so-called Diefenbunker, a fallout shelter and emergency command centre outside Ottawa. [1]
  3. That, in opposition, he had forcefully opposed the design for what became our national flag.

My uneducated verdict: Canada didn’t fall apart under the six years of his rule. On the other hand, Diefenbunker aside, it was hard to point to any enduring accomplishment of his government.

(Note: all unsourced Diefenbaker quotes and anecdotes are taken from One Canada.)

diefenbaker one canada boxed set

One Canada, Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker.

Progressive, conservative.

Between 1942 and 2003 Canada’s right-of-centre party, colloquially the Tories, were officially the Progressive Conservative Party: columnist Allan Fotheringham used to mock them as the Forward-Backwards Party.

This self-cancelling sobriquet originated as a sop to John Bracken, the popular Progressive premier of Manitoba, to induce him to seek the national Conservative leadership in 1942. In Diefenbaker’s view, by the 1945 election (which the Tories lost) Bracken had abandoned whatever Progressive principles he carried over to his new party.

Before romping to the Tory leadership in 1956, Diefenbaker made longshot runs in 1942 (just two years after arriving in Ottawa) and 1948. He did a little better each time, to the annoyance of the party “pashas” in Central Canada, whom he disdained as reactionaries and who in turn despised him as a “Western populist”. Then as now, what this meant was hard to pin down:

I once asked one of them to define the term for me. He thought it was some kind of erratic radicalism. When pressed further, he wasn’t certain what his new term encompassed, except that it did encompass those things he disapproved of.

Much of Dief’s “populism” was gestural, like his conspicuous lack of interest in joining Ottawa’s tony Rideau Club. (He used to chuckle that from his office atop Parliament Hill he could “look down on” the club a couple blocks away.) In his memoir he recounts how an “important Canadian industrialist” once dropped by his office and complained when he wasn’t shown in ahead of an Alberta farmer with a prior appointment – a mere “rustic”, as the indignant bigshot supposedly described him.

That such snobbishness was highly correlated with Liberal Party membership may have been more than Dief’s paranoid fancy: after 21 uninterrupted years in power, the Liberals would have been the party of choice for power-hungry hacks, greasy-pole-climbers, and all those serenely invested in the status quo.

The Tories defeated Louis St. Laurent’s Liberal Party in 1957 by running to their left on the economy – vowing to increase the Old Age Pension, launch a major public works program to fight rising unemployment, and roll back the “continentalist” trade policy that had allowed big American corporations to buy out or outcompete smaller Canadian firms. Their victory was propelled in part by public disgust at Liberal high-handedness in invoking closure to shut down the Pipeline Debate in 1956; the Tories’ main objection to that bill had been that the pipeline in question was to be built by an American-owned company.

You’ll notice that 1950s-style Progressive Conservativism has a lot of overlap with modern-day conservative populism – bumptiously nationalistic, suspicious of foreign capital, blithe about budget deficits – and would go over about as well with the descendents of that “important Canadian industrialist”. As Peter C. Newman wrote in Maclean’s during the 1963 election campaign:

The sight of a Tory prime minister condemning Toronto financial interests is indeed a strange one in Canadian history. But then Diefenbaker has always been a maverick in his own party. When he was in opposition he shocked his fellow Conservatives by advocating that businessmen convicted of monopoly practices should be jailed, not just fined.

Diefenbaker elaborates:

To steal a million dollars and face a ten-thousand-dollar fine, if one was caught, was an invitation to the potential wrongdoer. … [A] corporation as an artificial person is not punished by picayune penalties of that kind.

I’m sure Dief would have had much to say about a Liberal government’s legally questionable convolutions to avoid prosecuting a major Quebec-based employer.

Against bigness.

Humblingly, the fourth thing I thought I knew about Diefenbaker I had completely backward. In my faulty recollection Dief, the doughty sentinel of Canadian sovereignty, had nurtured the Avro Arrow, the technologically advanced fighter jet whose funding was vindictively cut off by his Liberal successors.

Of course, as any afficianado of Canadian made-for-TV historical dramas could tell you, it was Diefenbaker who vindictively killed the Arrow, a project bequeathed to him by Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. As he admits:

[F]rom a construction standpoint, the AVRO Arrow was an impressive aircraft, superior to any other known contemporary all-weather fighter, something all Canadians could be proud of as their product.

But alas:

[I]t was altogether too costly, had too short a range, and would be out of date by the time it got into production.

Moreover, the Arrow’s potential customers in Europe and the States, concerned no doubt with cultivating their countries’ own airplane industries, showed no interest in buying the damn thing. Critics (like Gordon Donaldson, in Sixteen Men) have recast Dief’s reluctant acceptance of the economic realities as a deliberate and gleeful desecration:

An industry died and Diefenbaker stamped on its grave by personally demanding that the five Arrows in existence be completely destroyed. … It was the most extravagant display of vandalism in Canadian history.

Dief claims to have had no foreknowledge of the “callous” way his decision would be handled – the workers laid off via an announcement over the factory loudspeakers, the prototypes “reduced to scrap”. For these actions he pins the blame on the manufacturers, who were lazy parasites besides:

A.V. Roe, since the end of the Second World War, had lived and grown rich on Canadian defence contracts. The company seemed horror-struck at the prospect of having ever to compete in a normal market-place situation.

It isn’t hard for a more sympathetic historian, like John Boyko, to frame this as another instance of Diefenbaker putting the boot to entrenched business interests:

Two years before President Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex, Diefenbaker proved that he would not be its handmaiden: the Arrow was dead[.]

In fact, Diefenbaker was as fulsome as any modern conservative in his attacks on government waste and his celebration of free markets. This sometimes had schizophrenic effects. Senator Eugene Forsey recalled a meeting with the Canadian Labour Congress in which one of Dief’s ministers gave a well-received presentation on the government’s labour-friendly policies. But alas:

The prime minister arose and said, “I have nothing to add to what the minister of labour has said,” and then talked for ten minutes and proved it. He not only had nothing to add, he had a great deal to subtract. It wasn’t at all clear … But out of the fog came, from time to time, “free enterprise, the principles of free enterprise, the principles of free enterprise to which this government was devoted…”
—Quoted in Peter Stursberg’s Diefenbaker: Leadership Gained.

Forsey sent a letter chiding the PM for fumbling the goodwill his minister had reaped; Dief responded by snubbing Forsey for the next two years.

In his memoir, Diefenbaker attempts to square his contradictory impulses:

I believe in the right of the individual to make his best in life. I have nothing but contempt for those who regard profits as being dangerous. Without them there is no advance, nor would there be the free society that is ours. But I believe that there must be a minimum for all. There is a profound division between those who believe that the State has no legitimate role in determining the course of the individual, and those who believe that the State has responsibilities as a referee, and so must have the power to protect the weak and the less privileged. I am not against big business. Bigness is essential today as never before; but I am against bigness when it permits the few to destroy or undermine the welfare of the many.

(A modern-day conservative populist has expressed the idea more pithily:

Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite.)

To his conservative critics, such ideological eclecticism only proved that Diefenbaker “had no discernible political convictions”. To liberal journalists, who might have been expected to show more sympathy, the explanation was that he was building a personality cult. Newman again:

Diefenbaker made sure there would be few ideological barriers to those who wanted to become his disciples. In order to involve non-Conservatives in his struggle, he deliberately discarded most of his party’s traditional policies and transformed it into an organ of personal aggrandizement.

In a later Maclean’s article Newman would psychoanalyze Diefenbaker’s small-town followers in language forecasting modern-day expeditions among the surly denizens of Trumpland:

It is anger that fills their minds and resentment that motivates their politics. Not so long ago they were at the forefront of Canadian civilization. They won this country from the wilderness and now they have lost it[.] … They regret the disappearance of simplicity, fidelity and all the homely virtues.

Meanwhile Dief’s Liberal opponents, however few their substantive policy differences with his government, had borrowed from their American friends the mantle of suavity and forward-lookingness. When in 1963 Democratic Party pollster Lou Harris (who had entered Canada using a false name to avoid alerting Diefenbaker to his presence) surveyed the electorate on behalf of Lester Pearson’s Liberals he found that (to quote Boyko again):

The party was attracting the same people as Kennedy and the Democrats: urban, educated, young, middle and upper class, and ethnic minorities. These groups, Harris told his Liberal friends, represented Canada’s future. Conservative support rested with each of the groups’ mirror opposites and, like Diefenbaker himself, hearkened back to a quickly receding past.

Years later, the author George Grant recalled how he’d baffled the metropolitan opinion-shapers by backing this “silly survivor from a well-forgotten past”. He quotes a “young scion of great wealth” who chided him:

“Oh George, how can you support such a vulgarian? Pearson is such a gentleman compared to that yahoo.”

Deux nations.

john and olive diefenbaker 1960

John and Olive Diefenbaker in 1960.
Source: Maclean’s.

Of course, no populist campaign would be complete without accusations of dog-whistle politics. However often Diefenbaker protested his belief in equal rights for all – however conciliatory were the French phrases he bawled out in his barbaric Saskatchewan accent – he could never shed the reputation of being secretly anti-Quebec.

The critics were confident that they could crack Dief’s coded messages to his redneck base. Of the 1965 campaign, in which the ousted Chief flogged his Liberal successors over a series of scandals, historian J.L. Granatstein wrote:

The names were French, and the Tory leader revelled in his mispronunciations and appeals for One Canada. In the code of the day, whatever Diefenbaker might have meant, he was unfailingly understood as wanting to put and keep Quebec in its place.

Or when at the 1967 Tory convention, Dief (fighting hopelessly to retain the party leadership) resisted a policy declaring Canada as constituting “deux nations”:

To many it seemed only a statement of the Canadian reality. But to John Diefenbaker, deux nations meant that his party was giving short shrift to those Canadians who were of neither French nor English origin and conceding an equality to French Canadians that he could not accept.

Pained by such sniping, Dief would point to his government’s record: the appointment of Canada’s first French Canadian governor general, bilingual cheques for civil servants, the introduction of simultaneous translation in parliamentary debates. His cabinet minister Leon Balcer later told Peter Stursberg that these were “the kind of thing that would have created enthusiasm in Quebec in the fifties”. But by 1960, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was already getting into swing, and such gestures could be dismissed as mere “tokenism”.

While Dief was seen in some English Canadian circles as too ethnic, in Quebec he was resented for his sentimental attachment to the British crown, his support for conscription during the war, and his reverence for Tory prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, still blamed for overseeing the execution of the French Canadian rebel Louis Riel in 1885. That event wasn’t such ancient history as it seems today: as a child Diefenbaker had met Riel’s lieutenant Gabriel Dumont, by then a fearsome and fascinating old man, with a distinctive part in his hair from the bullet that grazed his skull at the battle of Duck Lake.

Diefenbaker thought that Riel’s cause had been just, but the man himself off his rocker:

If I had a case in which the evidence of insanity was as clear, I would not have to submit any further evidence, I feel sure. If he had allowed his lawyers to carry the defence as they wanted to, he would have been found “not guilty” by reason of insanity.

Riel’s death, he complained, had ever since been “a millstone” dragging down the Tories’ chances in Quebec.

Ironically, it was a Quebecker, Diefenbaker’s sometime-ally, sometime-rival Pierre Sevigny, who claimed credit for inventing Dief’s catchphrase during the 1958 campaign:

Diefenbaker was talking in his inimitable way about Canada, the dream of a greater and better and bigger Canada. I told him: “Well let’s leave it as this. One Canada where everybody will live together in harmony.” I remember the word “harmony.” My God, it was as if I had put a bomb under his seat. He got up and said, “That’s it! Yes. One Canada.”

Sevigny traced Dief’s anti-French reputation back to his decision in 1957 to heed the strategic advice of a western colleague, Gordon Churchill, to reallocate party funds away from the pursuit of Quebec votes:

[Churchill] did not advocate starving out Quebec and giving it nothing. But he advocated a common-sense policy which was to use the little money that the PCs had in a better way, in a more rational way than had been done. …

Of course, politics being the nice polite game that it is, Mr Churchill’s and Mr Diefenbaker’s and all of the Conservatives’ enemies took advantage of this declaration to represent Churchill as the enemy of Quebec and French Canada and that kind of nonsense.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

In this respect, the 1957 Tories presaged the 2016 Trump campaign’s adoption of the so-called Sailer Strategy of abandoning their unavailing attempts to win over Latino voters to pursue more numerous, more persuadable blue-collar whites.

The dirty brush.

john diefenbaker 1940

Diefenbaker circa 1940.
Source: Saskatoon Public Library.

Like Donald Trump, Diefenbaker would be dogged by rumours of association with avowed racists:

A flash in the pan, the K.K.K. was first noticeable in Saskatchewan in 1926. It spread much in the same way as the Non-Partisan League or the Progressive Party before it. Based on a strong anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-non-English-immigrant, anti-coloured sentiment, it was fired by the oratorical powers of J.J. Maloney. Around it coalesced certain factions sharing a bitter hatred for the [Liberal Premier James] Gardiner machine. If left alone, it might have disappeared as quickly as it had emerged. Unfortunately for everyone, Gardiner began in 1928 to use it as a political straw man. He launched a series of political attacks on it in the Provincial Legislature, bringing the K.K.K. out of its obscurity, giving its leaders the appearance of political martyrs, and making it a recognizable centre of opposition to his government and its policies. Everyone who opposed Gardiner, his policies, and the viciousness of his machine was tarred with the dirty brush of Klan fanaticism.

That, at least, was how Diefenbaker saw it: no doubt Gardiner and his allies convinced themselves they were doing noble work, shining a cleansing light on this outbreak of moral bacilli. (Likewise Hillary Clinton as she singlehandedly made the alt-right a household name by condemning it in the middle of a national election campaign; likewise the American media each time they play along with some desperate attempt by David Duke to edge himself into the national conversation.)

Diefenbaker goes on to share an addendum to the Klan story that a contemporary politico would likely omit:

I met the Klan leader, J.J. Maloney, only once and then for a period of not more than five or ten minutes. He asked for legal advice on the financial difficulties of the K.K.K. arising when its American organizers absconded with a large part of the organization’s dues.

I’m sure this encounter didn’t help Diefenbaker’s case when, during his 1956 leadership campaign, he was accused of having been in the Klan. He was cleared through the intercession of a Saskatchewan cabinet minister who, having access for some reason to “a complete list of the Klan membership”, swore that Diefenbaker’s name wasn’t on it.

(While some of Dief’s foes were trying to link him to the Klan, others were whispering that he was secretly a Jew.)

A reincarnated Diefenbaker would probably be more circumspect about having had cordial business dealings with a Klan leader. But the incident is consistent with his belief that everyone, however unpopular, was entitled to a legal defense. [2] During World War II he opposed the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their refusal to take up arms; at the dawn of the Cold War he condemned the government’s use of “police state methods” to break up a Soviet spy ring; and soon after he was “booed to the echo” by his Tory colleagues for resisting a party proposal to criminalize Communism. As Maclean’s related a few years later:

[T]he project got so far along that the literature was actually printed and awaiting distribution. Diefenbaker fought the idea in caucus, using the same arguments as Stuart Garson, the Liberal Minister of Justice, uses in public – that to outlaw Communism merely drives the party underground; that you can’t put a man in jail for his beliefs, no matter what they are. Diefenbaker carried his point. The campaign literature, still in bales, was carted away and burned. But the incident did nothing to allay the suspicions of those who call Diefenbaker a “Leftist.”

(In those quaint days “Leftists” were understood to be opposed to criminalizing speech.)

When in 1958 he introduced his legislation for a bill of rights – a document he’d been tinkering with since his days as a young lawyer in Wakaw, Saskatchewan – it was with the promise that thenceforth

wherever a Canadian may live, whatever his race, his religion or his colour, the Parliament of Canada would be jealous of his rights.

In his statue on Parliament Hill, Diefenbaker is depicted clutching a copy of his cherished bill.

“They are all Canadians.”

Dief’s bugbear “hyphenated Canadianism” sounds like a talking point from Canada’s modern-day megaphone of intemperate populism, The Rebel. But back before our government began sorting the citizenry into ever more profusely hyphenated racial categories to enforce equal representation, Dief’s beef was with what modern progressives would call the “othering” of those with non-British and non-French ancestry.

In an interview with Maclean’s during the 1958 election, Diefenbaker was strangely tight-lipped about the most innocent subjects – his favourite books, his favourite TV shows, his favourite food [3] – but he opened up when asked about “his compass”:

I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration. … It’s the reason I went into public life. That is what I said I was going to do. I’m very happy to be able to say that in the House of Commons today in my party we have members of Italian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Chinese and Ukrainian origin – and they are all Canadians. [4]

Under his government, Canada’s immigration system was reformed to remove the preferential status that had been granted to applicants from the British Isles and Western Europe. He bragged of having encouraged Canada’s first black MP, Lincoln Alexander, to run – “because he was a good man for the riding, not because he was black” – and of having appointed Canada’s first Native Canadian senator, James Gladstone.

diefenbaker native headdress duck lake saskatchewan

Diefenbaker is lectured for culturally appropriating Native Canadian headgear.
(I kid.)

As for Louis Rasminsky, his pick as governor of the Bank of Canada, he claimed he would have had the job already if St. Laurent’s Liberals hadn’t ruled him out because he was a Jew.

Diefenbaker sympathized with minorities in part because he, too, had put up with digs about his ethnicity. Saskatchewan CCF leader Tommy Douglas recalled sharing a microphone with Diefenbaker during the 1940 campaign:

I was rather pleased to meet him because at that time he was having a difficult time. My sympathies were with him. … [His Liberal opponent] Fred Johnson, more than by innuendo, very deliberately tried to portray Diefenbaker as a German. Every time he referred to him he referred to him as my opponent, “Mr. Diefenbacker,” and made it as guttural as possible at a time when, of course, anti-German feeling was very high.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

Although the political impact was probably marginal – Diefenbaker narrowly won that race – such insults nevertheless stung:

I suppose that those who have never experienced this sort of thing will never truly understand it. I have often wondered what the effect on my life would have been if my name had been my mother’s, Campbell-Bannerman, rather than Diefenbaker. [5]

Hence, President John F. Kennedy’s innocent mispronunciation of “Diefenbawker” was doubly grating: a personal slight, as well as a slight to Canada, whose leader’s name the callow president couldn’t be troubled to learn.

diefenbaker kennedy maclean's magazine

Diefenbaker and Kennedy.
Source: Maclean’s.

(As prickly as Dief could be about his own name, his enemies’ names were fair targets: during the 1965 election he would rail at “the Bananas and the Mananas and the rest of that menagerie,” referring to some petty Liberal corruption scandals concerning mobsters Joe Bonanno and Onofrio Minaudo.)

Reading about Dief’s name sensitivity, I was reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ complaint in Hitch-22 that certain left-wing journalists, when discussing his politically unpopular friend Paul Wolfowitz, would become suspiciously fastidious about pronouncing his name “Volfervitz” – rather than in the usual, and in this case correct, American way.

This might have been, as Hitchens believed, a “clumsy innuendo” on Wolfowitz’s Jewishness; or it might merely have been a misplaced straining for cultural sensitivity. (Compare for instance the German-born composer Kurt Weill who, after moving to the States, was annoyed by Americans who took the trouble to pronounce his name in the German fashion rather than, as he preferred, anglicizing it to “Curt While”.)

While on this topic, I can’t overlook Peter C. Newman’s assertion that Diefenbaker, nettled by his portrayal as a vain ditherer in Newman’s book Renegade In Power,

took great delight in mispronouncing my name as “Kneeman,” or more frequently as “Noyman.” He called me, in public, the “Bouncing Czech” [6] and in private, “that Viennese Jew.”

As evidence, Newman points to a handwritten note in the Diefenbaker archives:

Then there is Newman. … He is an innately evil person who seems intent on tearing other people to pieces. Seems honourable people have no protection from his mind and pen. He makes his fortune in doing so. NOTE: He is an import from VIENNA! [7]

Decline and fall.

As Robert Fulford documented after Dief’s 1963 defeat:

American journalists showed no affection for John Diefenbaker. He said in the campaign that they were against him, and he was right … from the liberal Democratic Reporter (“incapable of decision”) through the liberal Republican Life (“shrewd but narrow”), through the nonpartisan Atlantic Monthly (“Washington, like London, is weary of the Diefenbaker regime, which has had a genius for annoying both capitals”) right over to the ultra-conservative National Review (“led a once-great party into a wilderness of suspicion and parochialism”).

In his 1962 and ’63 campaigns, Dief suffered media coverage so blatantly, nitpickingly negative that it probably helped him, by affirming the authenticity of his embattled little-guy pose, more than it hurt. If anyone doubted that the powers-that-be had it in for him, he could unfurl, say, this mid-campaign edition of Newsweek with its lurid cover portrait:

diefenbaker newsweek cover february 1963

Newsweek, February, 1963.

…and equally lurid portrait inside:

[T]he India-rubber features twist and contort in grotesque and gargoyle-like grimaces; beneath the electric gray V of the hairline, the eyebrows beat up and down like bats’ wings; the agate-blue eyes blaze forth cold fire.

Diefenbaker would claim in his memoir that Newsweek‘s Washington bureau chief, a friend and ally of President Kennedy, had published the above article at Kennedy’s behest.

The later years of Dief’s rule had been enlivened by repeated spats with the Americans. The PM had gotten on chummily with President Eisenhower, who “[u]nlike his successor … did not regard the United States presidency as a glittering jewel; he saw it as a job to be done.” But when the rich, good-looking Kennedy came to power, Dief saw in him a Yankee manifestation of Liberal-style haughtiness and unearned self-assurance. (Kennedy had an equally immediate aversion to Diefenbaker, “that boring son of a bitch”; Mrs. Kennedy found his conversation “painful”.)

On their first meeting, in Washington, the former small-town lawyer asked the new president how he could have appointed his brother Robert, with no expertise in the law, as Attorney-General. Kennedy evaded the question with a joke: “Can you tell me how he could learn law faster?”

When the two history buffs chatted about the War of 1812, Kennedy teased his visitor that he was unaware of any British naval victories in that war. On his return to Ottawa, Diefenbaker instructed his national librarian to dig up some paintings depicting British victories so that he could send one as a gift to the president. His executive assistant John Fisher resisted:

I pleaded with Mr Diefenbaker, “Don’t send that to Kennedy, sir. What are you trying to prove by sending down something a hundred years after the event?” “Oh, we must teach him history. History must be taught,” he would mutter. I could tell from the twinkle in his eye that he was enjoying the devilish exercise.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

Fisher had the paintings sent out to be cleaned and then “stalled, stalled, stalled” in the hope that his boss would forget about the rash idea. (They were never sent.)

As the two leaders’ relationship soured, the ribbing gave way to real antipathy. Of being nagged by the new president to join the Organization of American States, Dief writes:

I was not about to have Canada bullied into any course of action. This was the first of a number of occasions on which I had to explain to President Kennedy that Canada was not Massachusetts, or even Boston.

He bristled at Kennedy’s demand that Canada stop trading with Castro’s Cuba, and lost his temper over American bureaucratic interference with a shipment of Canadian wheat to Communist China. Kennedy was equally infuriated when Diefenbaker was slow to mobilize the Canadian military during the Cuban missile crisis. (Dief feared that the move might antagonize the Soviets.) But the final straw was the PM’s refusal to accept American nuclear warheads for the Bomarc surface-to-air missile systems he’d agreed to install at two locations in Ontario and Quebec.

Dief’s reticence wasn’t based on philosophical opposition to nukes (although he was in favour of non-proliferation and arms-reduction treaties in the abstract) but on the reasonable-seeming principle that Canada must first be guaranteed joint control – that is, a “qualified veto” governing the use – of any nukes stationed on Canadian soil.

With nuclear bombers having been supplanted as the major threat to North American security by intercontinental missiles – against which surface-to-air missiles were ineffective – Dief had begun to suspect that, like the now-cancelled Avro Arrow, the Bomarcs survived only because of bureaucratic inertia. It didn’t emerge until just before the 1963 election that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had admitted that the Bomarcs’ primary strategic purpose now was to draw fire from Soviet missiles “that would otherwise be available for other targets”.

By the mid-1970s, when Dief was composing his memoir, the Liberals under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had gone much farther in thumbing their noses at the Americans while advertising Canada’s friendliness to Communist regimes. But in the early 1960s those needling Dief for insufficient hawkishness included not only right-wing members of his own cabinet, but most of the media, the Democratic administration in Washington, and his Liberal opposition in Ottawa.

Trudeau’s predecessor as Liberal leader, Lester Pearson – for the benefit of my non-Canadian readers, that would be Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester Pearson – jettisoned his earlier skepticism toward the Bomarc system and blasted the government for its “evasion of responsibility” in not accepting the nuclear warheads. In Dief’s view, Pearson had sold his principles in exchange for foreign aid in the elections of 1962 and 1963:

President Kennedy had achieved his dearest Canadian wish. It was a partnership complete: the Liberals under Pearson had progressed, if one may call it that, from condemning our wheat sales to Communist China … to embracing the United States position on arming with nuclear weapons the Bomarcs and, no doubt, yielding to United States demands for the storage of all manner of nuclear devices in Canada. At the time, Pierre Elliott Trudeau described Mr. Pearson as “the unfrocked pope of peace.”

(Trudeau in the early 1960s had been a supporter of the socialist NDP and a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy. Throughout his memoirs Dief has fun recalling Trudeau’s gibes at Pearson’s coziness with the Americans.)

diefenbaker watching trudeau on tv

Diefenbaker watches Trudeau in the 1979 leaders’ debate.
Source: Canadian Press.

Kennedy’s team certainly made no secret of the fact that they had been cheerleading for Pearson’s Liberals, even if their actual interference had the opposite of the desired effect: the newly elected Pearson told Kennedy that his State Department’s notorious press release accusing the ex-PM of lying about the nuclear negotiations had “probably cost me fifty seats”, by riling up Dief’s nationalist supporters.

I’m sure many readers will scoff at Diefenbaker’s suggestion that besides authorizing the press release, ordering up the nasty Newsweek article, and loaning his pollster to the Liberals, Kennedy had arranged for his Wall Street buddies to take steps to undermine the Canadian economy, leading to the 1962 run on the currency which contributed to Dief’s defeat.

There’s no proof of that. But at the time, many Americans concurred with Diefenbaker that Washington had deftly engineered his downfall. Some, like Richard Starnes in the Washington Daily News, praised the operation:

[A]droit statecraft by the American State Department brought down the bumbling crypto anti-Yankee government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and replaced it with a regime that promises to be faithful to the concept of Canadian-American interdependence. … [T]he Kennedy Administration must congratulate itself in private for its coup.

Other Americans were aghast at their government’s cheek, like the man who approached Dief in the wake of his loss saying, “I want to shake hands with the only Prime Minister of Canada who has ever been defeated by a President of the United States.”

Whatever combo of U.S. interference, media bias, and Tory backstabbing overwhelmed Diefenbaker, it was certainly helped along by his own talent for aggravating the rich and influential. As he expressed it, not without self-pity:

I went down there to see what I could do for the common people and the big people finished me[.]

One Canada.

In the foreword to Volume Two of One Canada, Diefenbaker’s editors remark that Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, like President Hoover in the States, is to this day maligned for having had the bad luck to be in power as the Great Depression set in. Bennett left no memoir to tell his side of the story. Consequently:

The Conservative regime that governed Canada from 1930 to 1935 has been treated by Canadian historians as an aberration in the great Liberal scheme of things Canadian. A major work on R.B. Bennett has yet to be written. Had Mr. Diefenbaker failed to provide us his account of his national stewardship, we might have had worse than nothing in its stead.

Intent on supplying grist for the historians, Diefenbaker dissects his prime ministership with eye-glazing thoroughness, quoting liberally from his own speeches, press statements, and routine correspondence. (Perhaps to debunk the myth of his French-language illiteracy, several lengthy statements are presented in their original French.)

But his tendency to assume an intimate knowledge of the politics of his era makes his memoir useless as a standalone history. Often he’ll introduce a subject with some comment like “Without going into unnecessary details (they are chronicled elsewhere)…” leaving the reader to guess where he stood on the issue: not always easy, given how Dief bucked his own party’s traditions, not to mention how political alignments have shifted in the past sixty years. I found myself skimming a lot, slowing down for the interludes of gossip, spleen-venting, and folksy wisdom.

Therefore I can’t quite recommend One Canada to casual readers. Perhaps some Canadian publishing house with a passion for 20th century history and a jaunty indifference to sales figures could undertake a one-volume abridgement, which would skip over the langours but retain all the good stuff. If an editor is wanted, I’m available.

M.

1. Re Diefenbaker’s civil defence policy, see discussion of the Special Militia Training Plan in Chapter 6 of Andrew Burtch’s “Canada and the Failure of Civil Defence, 1945-1963”.

2. Dief took seriously his cabinet’s responsibility to review every death sentence case; these lengthy discussions annoyed his colleagues and contributed to his government’s reputation for irresolution and inertia. Per Peter C. Newman’s accounting (in Renegade In Power), Dief’s cabinet commuted 52 of the 66 death sentences they examined, a percentage much higher than their predecessors’ 35 of 85.

These sentence reviews led to awkwardness over the presence of Ellen Fairclough, Canada’s first female cabinet minister, whom the old-fashioned Dief once asked to leave the room during consideration of an infamous sex killing. She complied but later scoffed at the overdelicacy of her “namby-pamby” male colleagues. (This story is related in Stursberg’s Leadership Gained.)

3. In Renegade in Power, Newman recounts how “when reporters badgered Mrs Diefenbaker to tell them her husband’s favourite food, she had no answer. Later, when she asked him, he hesitated for a while, then replied, ‘Oh, yes, I know. Potatoes.'”

4. In the same 1958 Maclean’s interview Diefenbaker declares that he has “an intensive hatred for discrimination based on color”. He attributes this conviction, strangely enough, to his early viewing of the movie Birth of a Nation, with its heroic Ku Klux Klansmen protecting Southern civilization from brutish blacks. As near as I can tell from browsing old reviews on Google Books, Birth of a Nation was seen as racist even in the 1950s. Did Dief mean that as a teen he was so repelled by the movie that he became an anti-racist? Or did he discern in it some anti-racist moral that is invisible to modern viewers?

5. Considering the number of Canadians and Americans with German ancestry, it’s remarkable how rarely politicians with German-sounding names have risen to prominence in either country. West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer couldn’t help noticing the overlapping tenures of the 20th century’s two great exceptions: at a 1958 meeting with the PM, he joked, “Adenauer, Eisenhower, and Diefenbaker – what a threesome!”

6. In Martin Amis’s non-fiction book about Communism, Koba the Dread, he mentions how after his father Kingsley visited Czechoslovakia in 1966 a “stream of Czechs” dropped by their London home, leading to a corresponding stream of bad puns: “There were bouncing Czechs, certified Czechs, and at least one honored Czech, the novelist Josef Skvorecky.”

7. I really don’t know what to make of Dief’s alleged slurs against Newman, who has been accused by others of “greedy and cynical manipulation” of the facts: Conrad Black, for one, called him “a peddler of gossip” and sued him for libel. But then, Black’s reputation is not exactly without blemish

The chain of incomprehension.

With Shakespearean knots on my mind recently, I had my eyes open for other examples of knotty writing.

cormac mccarthy blood meridian

Like this one in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Glanton, leader of a gang of American mercenaries hunting Apache scalps in northern Mexico, is brooding over the campfire:

He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.

I read that five or six times, getting madder each time, and finally decided it must contain a typo. Swapping in the word “by”, if it didn’t quite unfuddle the meaning, at least resolved the sentence into some kind of syntactical clarity:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and by his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

But it turns out that others had already untangled McCarthy’s knotty grammar. If that offending “be” is assumed to be in the subjunctive mood, the sentence comes smooth:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and [though] his charter [be] written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

Argh. Why not just write that in the first place? Why be deliberately obscure?

…To which a Cormac McCarthy fan might answer (sans quotation marks, of course), why not print the crossword with the answers filled in?

***

Casting around for examples of long-winded drivel to contrast with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s soliloquy on Salic inheritance in Henry V, I thought of Lucky’s speech in Waiting For Godot.

samuel beckett waiting for godot

To summarize the play, two hoboes are waiting in a desolate landscape for a benefactor named Godot, who will never arrive. A self-possessed rogue named Pozzo happens by, whipping along his slave, the elderly and apparently mute Lucky. For his new friends’ amusement, Pozzo instructs Lucky first to dance, and then to “Think!” …at which the slave, at first haltingly, declaims:

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell …

…And so on for three pages, to the increasing exasperation of his audience, onstage and off. I remain of the opinion that this speech was scribbled out by Samuel Beckett in a process of free-association, perhaps incorporating snatches of whatever printed matter happened to be at hand, and taking not much longer to compose than it would take to read aloud; i.e., eight minutes or so. But there are scholars who’ve dedicated vast energies to the exegesis of Lucky’s speech, which is, we are assured, “as carefully constructed as the play itself” – which praise may, subject to your view of the rest of the play, be self-cancelling.

kingsley amis collected short stories

There’s a story called “Dear Illusion” by Kingsley Amis. (It’s the inspiration for the ugly cover for his Collected Short Stories, discussed here.) A venerable and beloved poet, doubting whether he’s deserving of the critical adulation that has belatedly elevated him to national fame, dashes off a volume’s worth of poems in a single day, “just putting down whatever came into my head in any style I thought of”, including this Luckyish gem:

Man through different shell all over turns into sea swelling birth comes light through different man all over light shell into sea. Rock waits noon out of sky by tree same turns into rock by noon out of sky underneath tree out of same rock. …

That such half-assed efforts are as widely and vaporously praised as his earlier, sweated-over ones confirms to the poet the worthlessness of his life’s work, which he publicly disavows at a gala dinner in his honour:

“With respect, Sir Robert wasn’t quite right in saying I’ve been neglected. If only I had been. … I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time for thirty-eight years writing what’s supposed to be poetry; I’d have looked round for some other way of coping with the state of mind that made me write those things.”

Later, when a sympathetic journalist tries to convince the poet that his experiment hasn’t definitively proven his lack of talent:

“Not like in geometry, no. Just a very strong presumption. Quite strong enough for me.”

“But…you may still be good even though…”

“You mean God or somebody may think I’m good. I’d certainly respect his opinion. But he’s not letting on, is he?”

***

C.P. Snow’s The Sleep of Reason deals with the same themes as Blood Meridian – the unfathomable workings of fate; the ever-immanent human lust for depravity and how swiftly it reemerges when societal constraints break down – but in a modest and unfussy style that, to my mind, underlines the central mystery more effectively than McCarthy’s freakshow of bloodstained ruffians muttering curses at the remorseless sun.

c.p. snow the sleep of reason

Toward the end, after getting entangled in the trial of a pair of sadistic murderers whose motives are never fully explained, Snow’s narrator attends a relative’s funeral and has his attention captured by a knotty passage in I Corinthians:

[Our ancestors] must have gone to the funeral services in the village churches, and listened to this Pauline eloquence for at least a dozen generations. Some of that gene-pool was in us. Gone stoically, most of them, I thought. As with us, phrases stuck in their memories. As with me as a child, the rabbinical argumentation washed over them.

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin: and the strength of sin is the law.

How old was I, when I first became puzzled by that gnomic phrase? We had all listened to it, the whole line of us, life after life, so many lives, lost and untraceable now.

In the unlikely event that C.P. Snow is still being read 400 years from now, our descendants will find much in his novels to confuse them: strange customs, forgotten fashions, obsolete turns of phrase…but perhaps amid the confusion they, like me, will be arrested by the image of a long chain of simple men and simple women half-following the drone of the burial service, their eyes suddenly narrowing in puzzlement, linked across time by a moment of common incomprehension.

M.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

A sympathetic reaction: C.P. Snow’s The Light and the Dark.

In a subplot of Kingsley Amis’s 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, an Oxford college debates whether to surrender to the Zeitgeist and admit female students. It’s mentioned that a strange alliance is forming between the more reactionary of the men’s colleges – attached to the status quo for the reasons you’d expect – and the women’s colleges, who fear losing their student base to the more prestigious, traditionally all-male institutions.

“It’s like something out of C.P. Snow,” someone observes.

For C.P. Snow’s novels are famously About Politics. I capitalize the words to emphasize that this is not the same as being Political, as the word is usually meant: when we attend an evening of Political comedy, we don’t expect a bunch of gags about coalition building, or how to swing a recalcitrant committee member to your side; we expect to be lectured about how awful the Republicans are, with (if we’re lucky) a few jokes thrown in.

I would be hard-pressed to name a book more About Politics than 1951’s The Masters, which concerns the manoeuvres leading up to a vote by the dozen or so fellows of a Cambridge college to elect a new Master from among themselves. It’s a topic that would lend itself to black humour; but however low-stakes their dissensions appear, however petty their motives, Snow never treats his characters cynically. As he wrote elsewhere, in what could serve as a thesis statement for all his fiction:

Put your ear to those meetings and you heard the intricate labyrinthine and unassuageable rapacity, even in the best of men, of the love of power. If you have heard it once – say, in electing the chairman of a tiny dramatic society, it does not matter where – you have heard it in colleges, in bishoprics, in ministries, in cabinets: men do not alter because the issues they decide are bigger scale.

That passage comes from 1954’s The New Men, which is about British physicists working to develop the atom bomb during World War II, and subsequent efforts by the idealists among them to prevent the bomb from actually being used. It belongs, along with the better-known The Masters, to the Strangers and Brothers series: eleven novels written over a span of thirty years, collectively depicting a life and career arc roughly paralleling the author’s own. I’ve read three others:

The Affair (1960), set twenty years after The Masters and at the same Cambridge college, concerns an apparent case of academic fraud by a stridently left-wing scientist that divides the administration.

The Sleep of Reason (1968), set in a grimy corner of England during the 1960s sexual revolution, examines both sides of a sexually sadistic murder trial where the sanity of the defendants is in doubt. (It was Peter Hitchens’s review of The Sleep of Reason a few years back that inspired me to start collecting Snow’s books.)

The Light and the Dark (1947) I’ll be discussing below.

Our narrator and authorial stand-in Lewis Elliott takes an active part in the conflicts animating these stories. He’s usually aligned with the “radical” side, meaning he supports the modern progressive agenda, more or less, albeit with more central economic planning and less freaky sex stuff. But Elliott, like his creator, is a level-headed, good-humoured chap who keeps up friendships even with political foes.

But it’s not only the author’s fair-mindedness that keeps the novels from feeling propagandistic – Political in the typical sense. It’s that Snow isn’t much interested in rehashing topics that at the time would have seemed wearisomely familiar from op-eds and dinner party debates. Perhaps because he sees political beliefs as being formed by personality and social pressures rather than by reasoned-out arguments, or perhaps simply because he finds political debate dull as a subject for fiction, the content of those debates is usually skimmed over. His characters let fall acid remarks at parties, unburden their souls while strolling by the Cam, reveal too much under the influence of alcohol, but their words are always slightly askew of the main point. On occasion a key revelation will be so artfully, annoyingly lacking in specifics that you wonder if you’ve skipped a page.

c.p. snow the light and the dark

The Light and the Dark, though less About Politics than the other books mentioned above, is somewhat more Political. It’s about Lewis Elliott’s friendship with a dashing, brilliant, emotionally troubled linguist named Roy Calvert, whose specialty is the early writings of Manichaeism, the extinct faith whose name has become shorthand for black-white thinking.

The setting is Cambridge and London in the 1930s. Calvert’s researches take him frequently to Berlin, where in his naturally gregarious way he makes friends in both low and high society: among the Bohemian fringe as well as in the ruling Nazi elite.

Back home he is reproached by some of his fellow academics for his apparent Nazi sympathies, but such sentiments are not uncommon at a time when many moderate Englishmen are still eager to believe that war can be avoided. Calvert is protected by his reputation for frivolity. At the faculty dining table he amuses himself by teasing the more hawkish fellows; with a straight face he suggests that the college’s Jewish scholars be reclassified as “Welsh by statute” to remove a potential source of friction with the Germans. And yet he’s personally unprejudiced, twits his Nazi friends openly about their “mad” Jewish policy, and at some personal risk and expense helps a family of German Jews resettle in England.

Inviting the narrator to visit him in Berlin, Calvert opens up about his hopes for the regime:

The future [said Calvert] would be in German hands. There would be great suffering on the way, they might end in a society as dreadful as the worst of this present one: but there was a chance – perhaps a better chance than any other – that in time, perhaps in our life time, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

“If they succeed,” said Roy, “everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue.”

To us this sounds callous and nuts, but Calvert knows that it will be difficult for Elliott to refute without being hypocritical; it so closely parallels the arguments of their pro-Soviet friends. [1]

(As a real-life example, here’s Snow’s contemporary, the poet Stephen Spender, remembering in The God That Failed what he believed as a young Communist in 1930s England:

One ceases to be inhibited by pity for the victims of revolution. … These lives have become abstractions in an argument in which the present is the struggle, and the future is Communism – a world where everyone will, eventually, be free. … It is “humanitarian” weakness to think too much about the victims. The point is to fix one’s eyes on the goal, and then one is freed from the horror and anxiety – quite useless in any case – which inhibit the energies of the liberal mind.)

Calvert, though himself intellectually subtle and temperamentally moderate, is attracted to simple and radical solutions. He is fond of a paradox (apparently a paraphrase of a famous line of the Cambridge clergyman Charles Simeon) that “the truth lies at both extremes. But never in the middle.” We see that his attraction to Nazism is connected to his religious yearnings – an atheist despite himself, he is terrified by the implications of free will, and suspects that he and others would be happier with their choices constrained. He perceives a germ of good sense at the core of the Nazi’s authoritarian philosophy which allows him to forgive their excesses.

It’s fascinating to hear such a likable character propound a tolerant view of Nazism, a view which must have been widespread in pre-war England but which now is so utterly abominated that it’s given voice only by cranks. As I’ve written before, despite its current reputation as a cesspool of drooling halfwits, had Nazism lasted longer as a governing philosophy it would inevitably, like Soviet Communism, have accumulated a vast library of subtle encomiums by anti-bourgeois intellectuals. People are capable of believing any implausible thing, and clever people are both better than the rest of us at coming up with good arguments for implausible beliefs, and more likely to be attracted to beliefs that give them the scope to demonstrate their cleverness. (The question, in this as in any other age, is whether our prevailing belief system is likely to stand up to the judgement of history, or whether we too will be revealed to have been taken in by a lot of fine-sounding razzmatazz.)

Calvert never exactly renounces his sympathies; when war breaks out he falls patriotically back into line. He tries retrospectively to explain to his friend his mixed feelings:

Roy said that he had never quite been able to accept the Reich. It was a feeble simulacrum of his search for God. Yet he knew what it was like to believe in such a cause. “If they had been just a little different, they would have been the last hope.” I said that was unrealistic: by the nature of things, they could not have been different. But he turned on me:

“It’s as realistic as what you hope for. Even if [the Germans] lose, the future isn’t going the way you think. Lewis, this is where your imagination doesn’t seem to work. But you’ll live to see it. It will be dreadful.”

As usual, Snow doesn’t spell out what Calvert means. I’d guess that in his disdain for the comfortable middle way Calvert dreads the triumph of Nietzsche’s Last Man, that stunted mediocrity incapable of higher aspirations than securing the safety of his own supple and well-moisturized hide:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” – say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled – otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” – say the Last Men, and they blink.

–from Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nearly eighty years later we’re much further along the road to Last Manhood, and it’s a good bet that if Calvert had lived to see it he would have despised our culture of trigger warnings, social media mobs, and corporate thought policing. Whether the progressive Lewis Elliott would have adapted better to present-day pieties is unclear. In his broad-minded way he would no doubt have found much to praise about them; but I suspect he would have felt a twinge of compunction when he saw some so-called Nazi being harried from his career for threatening the highly-evolved sensibilities of the modern Left.

M.

1. Update, Feb. 20, 2019. In Corridors of Power, a later entry in the Strangers and Brothers series set at the height of the Cold War, the narrator unconsciously echoes his old friend’s words. By this time, Lewis Elliott is a high-ranking civil servant in the defense bureaucracy whose anti-nuclear leanings attract suspicion from his own side’s spooks. Grilled about his youthful friendship with avowed Communists, he replies:

“I’m not emotional about the operations of politics. But about the hopes behind them, I’m deeply so. I thought it was obvious that the Revolution in Russia was going to run into some major horrors of power. I wasn’t popular with [my Communist friends] for telling them so. But that isn’t all. I always believed that the power was working two ways. They were doing good things with it, as well as bad. When once they got some insight into the horrors, then they might create a wonderful society. I now believe that, more confidently than I ever did. How it will compare with the American society, I don’t know. But as long as they both survive, I should have thought that many of the best human hopes stand an excellent chance.”

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Last year I voiced my revulsion at all the trendy talk about Nazi-punching, and more recently I expressed some sympathy for racist idiots. Nietzsche’s Last Man has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few years; witness this 2016 post about time travel, immigration, and the End of History which, I’ve come to realize, pretty much sums up everything I currently believe, making all my subsequent commentary redundant.

Aspects of the Novel and the limits of readers’ memories.

Midway through his famous discussion of “flat” versus “round” characters in Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster asks us to:

Suppose that Louisa Musgrave had broken her neck on the Cobb.

Forster has been evaluating the roundness of Jane Austen’s characters, so we can deduce that an incident from one of Austen’s books is being referred to; and toward the end of the next sentence, that book is disclosed as Persuasion.

I’ve read maybe a quarter of the books mentioned in Aspects of the Novel, and Persuasion happens to be one of them. Thinking hard, I reconstructed the scene: an excitable girl demands that her gentleman friend “jump her down” from the harbour wall to the pavement below; she miscalculates her jump, the gentleman misses, and (Austen females having the approximate constitution of ninety-year-old rheumatics) she spends the next few chapters on death’s door.

e.m. forster aspects of the novel

Aspects of the Novel was originally delivered, in 1927, as a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. Forster was confident not only that his hearers would recognize the allusion to Louisa on the Cobb, but that they would process it rapidly enough to give their attention to the fairly involved sentence that follows. Was he realistically gauging his audience’s recall – here, and on the many other occasions in Aspects where he takes for granted what I would consider a remarkable level of intimacy with these books?

Obviously, modern folks would be intimate with a different set of books than a 1927 crowd. Jane Austen remains well-known, though not so well that “Louisa Musgrave on the Cobb” will ring many bells. Henry James is still read; Oliver Goldsmith, less so; George Meredith, not at all.

No-one would today pick Walter Scott as an example of a novelist with “a trivial mind and a heavy style” whose continued fame relies on “happy sentimental memories” of having encountered him before our judgement had matured. Maybe Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs occupy a cultural space today comparable to Walter Scott’s circa 1927 – middlebrow relics evoking a bygone era of freedom and adventure, with enough residual literary cred that teenage readers are willing to pretend they’re not bored to death by them. But I doubt that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are one-tenth as widely known to modern readers as Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood would have been to Forster’s audience.

Perhaps Tolkien is a closer modern parallel to Scott. But before Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations came out, I don’t recall the names Gandalf or Aragorn being known to anyone outside nerd circles. In fact, when I try and think of literary non-title characters famous enough that a modern Forster could confidently drop their names – Tom Joad, Scout Finch, Mr. Rochester – most of them are famous at least in part because of the movies.

The 21st century schmoe remembers as many fictional characters as a 1927 Cambridge lecture-goer, but the memory slots that would once have held the members of Fagin’s gang or the murderers of Julius Caesar have been filled instead with Mos Eisley background freaks and Hogwarts house-elves.

***

The Introduction to my edition of Aspects quotes two esteemed Cantabrigians who in their youth attended the talks upon which the book was based: theatre director George Rylands, who was charmed by Forster’s undogmatic appeal to “the Common Reader”; and the critic and generally acknowledged lemon-sucker F.R. Leavis, who was “astonished at the intellectual nullity” of Forster’s ideas, and dismissed his fawning audience as “sillier dons’ wives and their friends”. Forster himself, in his Author’s Note, all but begs forgiveness for his unrigorous tone.

At any rate, it seems he wasn’t trying to be obscure. I wonder whether a modern lecturer would make such breezy assumptions about the Common Reader’s cultural literacy. Or would it be safer to aim at the level of the dull students imagined by Kingsley Amis in a 1967 essay on the consequences of dumbing down the education system:

You will use up less of your allotted time, and thus enable yourself to cover that much more ground, if you can say “As Eliot wrote”, instead of “As Eliot wrote…What’s the trouble? Oh, sorry. As T.S. Eliot – ee ell eye oh tee – the poet, dramatist, playwright, that is, and critic wrote…” While the thicks get what they need, the bright people doodle. [1]

Put aside whether we modern readers are more shoddily educated than our great-grandparents. Even if we’d been equally well-schooled in literature, and spent as much of our recreation time reading, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of additional novels have appeared in the past ninety years. Granting that most of those novels were worthless and quickly forgotten, the pool of “important” novels from which to choose is enormously larger now than it was then.

Picture what it was like at the other end of literary history. Taking Aristotle to task for his comment in the Poetics that “All human happiness or misery takes the form of action”, Forster forgivingly mentions that Aristotle “had read few novels and no modern ones – the Odyssey but not Ulysses“.

(…Which contradicts Forster’s earlier definition of a novel as “a fiction in prose of a certain extent”; but never mind, the Odyssey functions very much like a novel.)

Granting that the Odyssey and Iliad are novels – and that there then existed a handful of other verse epics, now lost – it was ordinary for a Greek gentleman of Aristotle’s time to have read one hundred percent of all the novels ever written in his language; and with a little more effort, that gentleman might familiarize himself with most extant plays, poetry, philosophy, and history as well. Thus it was easy to carry on a literary conversation with a fellow educated gentleman. You could be confident that when you mentioned Nausicaä doing her washing, or Hector’s frightening helmet, he’d get the reference.

By Forster’s day it was no longer possible, let alone desirable, for an educated Englishman to be familiar with every novel in his language. But avid readers had, of necessity, at least peeked into a broad sample of all the ones that mattered: there weren’t that many, and there wasn’t that much else to do. The odds of two people having read any given book were lower than in Aristotle’s day, but still high enough that Forster didn’t have to worry about the sillier dons’ wives losing the thread.

Forster in 1927 is nearer in time to us than he was to Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe; let’s say chronologically he’s at roughly the two-thirds point in the 300-year history of the English novel. But if you imagine him standing alongside a row of all the books ever published, laid end to end in order of publication, he’s surprisingly close to the beginning of the row. Because the earliest books have been around longest, and have had more time to influence the ones that came after, their importance is disproportionate to their small number; and Forster has read most of the books that, even now, matter the most; which is why we can still read him with interest. But with every passing year, the likelihood decreases that a lecturer and his audience – or any two readers of similar taste and educational background – will have peeked into the same books. The Common Reader has less and less in common.

At some point, as the frontiers of the subject recede further and further beyond the horizon, it may become impractical to talk broadly about literature in the way that Forster in 1927 still could. In an empire so vast, a single obscure province – young adult sci-fi by British women authors, say – will be spacious enough that a reader need never leave it; and the critic who presumes to generalize will, like a foreign correspondent who claims familiarity with a place based on a couple days hanging out in the hotel bar, risk exposing the breadth of his ignorance.

M.

1. “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right”, in Amis’s collection What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions.

Just a few weeks ago I built a long, depressing essay around a passage from E.M. Forster’s collection Two Cheers For Democracy and his favourite word, muddle. I shared my embarrassingly belated first impressions of the Odyssey last year. My negative opinion of the critic F.R. Leavis comes mainly from some sarcastic remarks directed at him by Clive James, mentioned in my 2012 discussion of the entangled afterlives of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Berks and wankers: A Canadian reaction to Kingsley Amis’s English.

My father, born and raised in Alberta, pronounced schedule with a sh- sound: SHED-jool. I don’t know whether he innocently inherited this quirk from his parents or teachers or the radio announcers of his youth, or whether he deliberately adopted it at some point to be perverse; whether he used it un-self-consciously right to the end, or whether he clung to it as a badge of linguistic distinction. Knowing him as I did, I think I can say he was free of any desire to lord his fancy pronunciation over anyone. He just loved language, loved to haul out five-dollar words, and since he must have noticed that his schedule was at odds with nearly everyone else’s, I guess he simply preferred it that way, and damn what anyone else thought.

That’s why I adopted it. Pulled in two directions, by the tides of North American English usage and by my father’s influence, I wavered between SHED-jool and SKED-jool through my teenage years, then settled consciously and definitely on the oldfangled pronunciation as I entered adulthood. It was done under the same impulse, no doubt, that makes me favour fedoras and bow ties, get sentimental about long-dead Hollywood actresses, and spend my leisure time re-reading Plutarch.

I can definitely say I never had a desire to lord my fancy pronunciation over anyone. But still my friends would sneer when I said SHED-jool. “What?” I would retort. “It’s how my father says it.”

A few years ago I was having drinks with friends and we wound up talking about words that irritated us. I don’t remember how the conversation went, but I probably mentioned “little ones” (a trendy substitute for “babies” or “kids” that makes me think of Victorian paintings of prancing fairies) and the short-A pronunciation of bathed (as in “bath-ing the little one” instead of “giving the kid a bath”) as two phrases that made my jaw instinctively clench. Someone said how much they despised SHED-jool and everyone groaned in sympathy.

“I say SHED-jool,” I peeped.

“I know,” my friend replied. “And I hate it.”

So I stopped saying SHED-jool, or tried to; I slip back into it without meaning to now and then. It doesn’t come up all that often – say a couple times a year – so it may take me the rest of my life to train myself to consistently say SKED-jool. By then, possibly, some new pronunciation will have come in vogue.

kingsley amis the king's english

In The King’s English, his idiosyncratic, cranky, and entertaining guide to English usage, Kingsley Amis divides abusers of the language into two broad classes:

Berks are careless, gross, crass, and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim, and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

Some pronunciations Amis identifies as useful wanker-detectors, like hors d’oeuvres (“few non-wankers over the age of, say, twenty-one try to say the words in any Frenchified way”), issue (“to say ISSyou is a piece of pressi-OSSity”) and words starting with wh- (“[n]o affectation is easier to detect than a phoney HW beginning to wh- words”).

I’m innocent of over-Frenchification and I don’t think I’ve ever said ISS-you, but I have been known, when reading aloud, to say HWICH and HWAT; I’ll stop. Amis has no entry on schedule, which of course as an Englishman he would have pronounced as my father did, but I suppose a Canadian edition of The King’s English would include SHED-jool among its wanker-detectors, along with other Anglicisms like ROWT for route and LEZHer for leisure; I’ve used these too. (In the latter case, I say it that way only in mock-grandiosities like “man of leisure” or “at your leisure”, where I think it’s okay.) Herb with a sounded H is the usual British pronunciation (as against North American ERB), but no Canadian has ever complained of my affected H; however toe-MAH-toe, spoken by a North American, would strike even me as highly suspect.

I mentioned Amis’s warning about hors d’oeuvres. He provides three useful pages of common French or French-derived terms along with the non-wankerish, non-berkish way to say them. Despite Amis’s general rule that a speaker should, “when the language of conversation is English, avoid any attempt at exact French pronunciation, which can hinder the flow of talk,” I would identify at least two of his suggestions, if used by a Canadian, as wankerishly Frenchified: penchant, for which he recommends PON(G)shon(g) while mocking Americans “who say penshant, as if they thought it was an English word”, and plaque, for which Amis prescribes “plahk rather than plack”. By contrast, his VALLit for valet and a-TATCH-y for attaché would in Canada be considered much more wankerish than the Frenchified versions, if they were comprehended at all. For macabre Amis memorably advises, “Imagine yourself addressing a Scot called Macarbrough”, i.e. muh-KAH-bruh; but I think muh-KAHB is perfectly comprehensible and better reflects the original French without injecting any distracting foreign sounds into the flow of talk.

Amis justly complains that “that right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion” by the forces of pedantry and political correctness. He mourns the loss of mar-SAILS for Marseilles – now shorn of its terminal S and universally pronounced in something like the French manner – and such long-established place names as Peking and Ceylon. (Since he wrote, Burma and Bombay have gone the same way.)

I would have liked some advice on what to do with foreign names containing non-English sounds. I vaguely recall a Woody Allen movie where someone’s (Diane Keaton’s?) insistence on pronouncing van Gogh with a guttural -gh sound at the end marked that character as a pretentious twit. I think self-respect demands van GO, and more or less BOCK for Bach and LOCK for a Scottish lake (with just the slightest effort to move the K sound to the back of the mouth; I was once scolded by a Scot for not trying harder, but I don’t see why I should be obliged to croak out non-English sounds while travelling in an English-speaking country). What else? There’s that hopeless German diphthong ö; I say GER-bels and GER-tuh for Goebbels and Goethe. Yet I guess I’m not quite self-respecting enough to insist on George Lewis BORE-jis for Jorge Luis Borges; I say HOR-hay lu-EES BORE-hess because I don’t want people to think I’m a total dummy. (For the same reason, I pronounce forte, in the sense of a strong suit, in the Italian style, for-TAY, even though I’m aware it derives from the French and is correctly pronounced FORT. What use is being right if everyone thinks you’re wrong?)

***

Complaining mildly of the crowding out of the older sense of gay by the newer, Amis concedes that

once a word is not only current, but accepted willy-nilly in a meaning, no power on earth can throw it out. The slightest acquaintance with changes in a language, or a minimum of thought, will show this truth.

But just thirty pages earlier, in his passage on disappearing English place names for foreign places, Amis has demonstrated that words can be thrown out quite rapidly, indeed willy-nilly, if there is a political will behind their banishment. Around the time (1997) The King’s English was published, Oriental, once the ordinary and uncontroversial term in North America for people who traced their ancestry to Asia’s Pacific rim, rapidly became taboo and was replaced with Asian. In the UK, Oriental is still used for our Asians, while Asian generally refers to people from the Indian subcontinent, whom over here we now call South Asians. Since this arrangement – the lexical monopolization of a whole continent by the natives of one or the other of its coasts – seems patently inadequate, I expect it too will be overturned in my lifetime. I’m hoping the helpful word Desi will come into wider use among English-speakers for the people and cultures of South Asia. But I’m aware of no comparable word for East Asia. Mongoloid might have done the trick if it hadn’t been made poisonous by its association with mental retardation.

Right now gay is undergoing a comparable renovation. A friend who works in a library told me about a poster that recently went up in the young adult section with the slogan, “That’s so gay is so yesterday.” In other words, the remaining negative connotations of gay – of effeminacy, uncoolness, overexcitability, trying too hard – are now to be swept away by fiat. I’m sure the campaign will be successful, although, in semi-conscious reaction against it, I lately find myself using or at least thinking gay in the “that’s so gay” sense more than I have since I was a teenager.

In theory there’s no reason why the two meanings of gay can’t coexist, the way black the racial group coexists with black the adjective meaning grim or gloomy. But of course blacks as a group aren’t thought of as particularly grim or gloomy, so the persistence of the other meaning doesn’t threaten them. Whereas gays as a group can be kind of gay, in the “that’s so gay” sense, as a look at the dudes shimmying on the floats at the Pride Parade will demonstrate. So unless “that’s so gay” can be purged of its meaning entirely – say, turned into a synonym for ugly or bland or some other concept that isn’t associated with gays – its use will necessarily be perceived as a slur.

***

Two examples of non-linguistic wankerish behaviour. First is the milk-in-first delusion, which is the notion common among Canadians that it’s somehow classier to put the milk in first when you’re pouring a cup of tea, as the British are thought to do. The irony being that among class-conscious Brits, milk-in-first was once (and perhaps still is?) thought to be rather common; Martin Amis and his peers had an adjective, miffy, that signified hopeless middle-classness. (I’ve written about this at greater length.) The wankerish behaviour isn’t putting the milk in first, or putting the milk in second; it’s passing comment in any way on the order you or someone else put the milk in. Shut up about it. It’s milk.

Similarly, until quite recently in North America it was considered unremarkable, in fact it was the usual thing, to put ice in a glass of Scotch. This is frowned on among Scotch aficionados, particularly those who learned their drinking in the UK. That’s fine; no-one’s saying you have to put ice in your Scotch, mate. But if someone else likes to, shut up, you wanker.

M.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Stanley and the Women, and why Martin Amis didn’t like it.

I read Kingsley Amis’s Stanley and the Women with curiosity. All I knew of it was what Martin Amis had said in his 2000 memoir Experience, that it was “a mean little novel in every sense, sour, spare, and viciously well-organized”, that with its “programmatic gynophobia” his father had effectively announced the “cancellation of his own artistic androgyny”.

kingsley amis stanley and the women

Although Martin suggests these failings are evident from page one, for me it wasn’t until the end of the book that Kingsley’s agenda became apparent. True, the chief villain is a woman, a psychologist who lectures Stanley, whose schizophrenic son she’s treating, on the defects of his generation’s childrearing methods:

“Of course with changing social conditions the elitist role of education is passing too.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“Nowadays there’s much more emphasis on the social function, training the kids to relate to each other and preparing them to take their places in the adult world.”

“At my school we got that thrown in, just by being there. We didn’t attend classes in it.”

“No, and we can see the results, can’t we?”

I thought about it. “Can we?” She probably meant sexism and censorship and things like that.

And true, other female characters are characterized as undependable, irrational, vindictive, and self-deluding. The men, meanwhile, even the minor characters, routinely take Stanley aside to share their unflattering take on gender relations. A police superintendent, after an encounter with the security chief of a Middle Eastern embassy:

“You know, Mr Duke, from a personal point of view, speaking just for myself you understand, the Major Fuads of this world have got one thing to be said not for them at all, just about them. They do seem to have got the women problem sorted out nice and neat. Whether you like it or not.”

An Irishman Stanley finds standing in the rain, kicking and punching a wall:

“The wife’s being a little bit provoking … you know, feminine. Now whenever that happens I don’t say a word, I come straight outside wherever I may be and I do what I just been doing for two minutes, and then I go back in the full joy of spring. When I got married I told myself I could be happy or I could be right, and I’ve been happy now for twenty-two years.”

In his memoir Martin mentions a recurring theme of Kingsley’s around the time he was writing Stanley:

It made my head drop, during this time, when my father, elaborately and not entirely unmordantly, started to liken women to the USSR (department of propaganda): when they do it they say this; when you do it they say that; and so on.

A variant of this made it into the novel. Here’s Stanley on the challenge of maintaining cordial relations with his self-absorbed ex-wife:

I remembered Cliff Wainwright saying once that women were like the Russians – if you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace, and if you ever stood up to them you were resorting to cold-war tactics and pursuing imperialistic designs and interfering in their internal affairs. And by the way of course peace was more peaceful, but if you went on promoting its cause long enough you ended up Finlandized at best.

The hero is unshocked by opinions like his friend Cliff’s, but he generously continues to make allowances for the females around him. If most of those females are “fucky nuck cases” (to quote a barroom interlocutor), at least Stanley’s wife is a paragon of good humour and well-adjustedness. I suppose it should have been more obvious to me as I read that finally she too would go off the rails, and so she does, precipitating Stanley’s acquiescence, at novel’s end, to Cliff’s resentful maunderings:

“According to some bloke on the telly the other night,” he said, “twenty-five per cent of violent crime in England and Wales is husbands assaulting wives. Amazing figure that, don’t you think? You’d expect it to be more like eighty per cent. Just goes to show what an easy-going lot English husbands are, only one in four of them bashing his wife. No, it doesn’t mean that, does it? But it’s funny about wife-battering. Nobody ever even asks what the wife had been doing or saying. She’s never anything but an ordinary God-fearing woman who happens to have a battering husband. Same as race prejudice. Here are a lot of fellows who belong to a race minding their own business and being as good as gold and not letting butter melt in their mouths, and bugger me if a gang of prejudiced chaps don’t rush up and start discriminating against them. Frightfully unfair.”

So I see what Martin Amis means when he talks about the novel’s “programmatic gynophobia”. I can also see how, with just the perfect tilt of one’s irony antennae, one might detect in Stanley a subtle satire of discombobulated manhood. Martin floated this possibility by his father:

– And by the way. There’s a huge piece in the London Review by Marilyn Butler saying that Stanley is pro-women after all. That’s balls, isn’t it.

– Oh, absolutely.

Martin’s verdict on Stanley and its similarly-themed predecessor Jake’s Thing:

The critique of womankind that seeps its way through Jake and Stanley is certainly not without interest or pertinence (both novels are sinisterly vigorous). … My objection to these novels is simpler than that: I can feel Dad’s thumb on the scales.

Of course, the author’s thumb is always on the scales, that’s how fiction happens. Books don’t write themselves, characters don’t dictate their own actions, however much it sometimes feels that way to an author in thrall to inspiration. Ultimately it’s you making your characters do and say particular things to achieve some intended effect, whether it’s to advance the plot or to make some didactic point, like Kingsley’s point that women are fucky nuck cases.

It’s no good to say that didacticism is itself a failing – Martin has himself written didactic fiction about the Holocaust, nuclear weapons (both of these things bad, let’s agree), and, over and over again, the delusions and dislocations of modern English manhood (also pretty bad). Nor is it a question of having to agree with the lesson the author is imparting. One can read Dickens or Jane Austen and be entirely unconvinced by the supposed moral conundrums faced by their characters – what are one’s obligations to a daughter who has dishonoured herself? what should be one’s attitude to a friend who marries a person of lower social station? – yet still respond to the books as literature.

Dickens and Austen are undoubtedly didactic authors – great ones. The problem with bad didactic authors like Ayn Rand or Upton Sinclair, say, is they’re clumsily didactic. Their characters say unbelievable things because their authors don’t have the skill to render any voice besides their own.

I guess that’s sort of Martin’s complaint about Stanley. It’s not the presence of his father’s thumb, it’s that he can feel it, Kingsley’s stubby digit, poking his characters in the ribs, reminding them to stick to the script. I don’t doubt that Martin Amis has subtler sensitivities than me. But I never noticed it, Kingsley’s thumb. It’s as well-hidden to me as it is in all his other novels, in every one of which, in just as ruthless a fashion, he prods his men and women along a preordained path toward a destiny he’s decided for them.

Stanley‘s women are wicked, as women sometimes are. Their creator is only showing a partial picture, of course, but that’s what a novel always by necessity is.

M.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

New Maps of Hell (Kingsley Amis).

Granting a year or so between writing and publication, it’s been almost exactly a half-century since Kingsley Amis conducted his 1960 survey of science-fiction, New Maps of Hell.

kingsley amis new maps of hell

I wish Amis had revisited the subject later in his life; I’d be interested to see him assess his own prophetic powers from the vantage point of 1970 or so, by which time the genre had already gone a long way to correcting at least one of the deficiencies he’d identified.

That deficiency is in the area of sex. As Amis points out,

Amid the most elaborate technological innovations, the most outré political or economic shifts, involving changes in the general conduct of life as extreme as the gulf dividing us from the Middle Ages, man and woman, husband and wife, lover and mistress go on doing their stuff in the mid-twentieth century way with a kind of brutish imperturbability… The sentimental consensus that this is perhaps the only part of human nature that can never be changed…is a disappointing trait in science-fiction writers, who as a rule are almost over-excitable in their readiness to see as variables what are normally taken to be constants… Though it may go against the grain to admit it, science-fiction writers are evidently satisfied with the sexual status quo.

Just think of all those sci-fi stories from the 1950s with their alien diplomats, flying cars, and rocketships to Venus, and mom still bustling contentedly about the home (perhaps in a jumpsuit instead of a dress), giving orders to the robot butler and dialling up dinner on the auto-range, while dad jetpacks off to the office to earn his paycheque. As Amis hints, there is something stunted in the psychology of (nearly all male) writers who could extrapolate from current social trends such vivid consumerist and conformist dystopias, not to mention summon up extraterrestrials and cosmic cataclysms of the profoundest weirdness, yet fail to foresee how in the very immediate future birth control and Betty Friedan would radically remould the relations between sexes.

But Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land came out just one year after New Maps of Hell, and by the end of the 1960s Heinlein and other writers were fully exploring the sexual revolution. This is what makes Amis’ vantage point so interesting – he’s hovering right on the rim of the old sci-fi cosmos, that quaint place of housewives with their robot butlers, while the new cosmos, more sophisticated (that is, more grown-up in its attitudes toward sex, not necessarily better written), has yet to show up on his viewscreen. Or so I would argue. Would the Amis of 1970 still say that the genre had not yet “come of age”? Would he still describe it as having “thrown up a large number of interesting and competent figures without producing anybody of first-rate importance”?

Even if New Maps of Hell weren’t a fascinating time capsule, even if it weren’t written with the typical Amis dry wit (of which more below), it would still be worthwhile as an introduction to a lot of authors I hadn’t heard of, or knew only by name. I’ve already placed an order on Abebooks. I’m particularly awaiting a collection of short stories by Katherine MacLean, a largely forgotten female pioneer in the field, who (judging from the brief excerpts Amis provides) appears to have been a progenitor of the great James Tiptree Jr., aka Alice Sheldon.

***

Just because I find it amusing, here is Amis’ synopsis of Damon Knight’s famous short story “The Country of the Kind”:

[A] practising artist…[is] apparently the only one left in a world built on universal benevolence and unbreakable social graciousness, a world that is hellish because without conflict. The artist, when not engaged on impromptu sculpture, goes round breaking into people’s houses and pouring hot soup over their furniture, a gesture again unjustified and justified. By a nice symbolical touch, he has been operated on at the authorities’ direction and given an intolerable smell which cuts him off from all human intercourse. Some readers will not be able to avoid seeing in all this a comparatively sober account of the behaviour of their own arty friends…

M.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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