DERB'S DECEMBER DIARY: [7 ITEMS!] Eartha Kitt, Cold War Poetry, Espionage Failures, And Gadgets Galore, ETC.
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An old-fashioned girl.     People grumble about the corny old Christmas music played in department stores and other public places at this time of year. Not me: I love it. A lot of the voices I’m hearing are those that made an impression on me back in my childhood and early teen years, when I was most impressionable.

Eartha Kitt’s, for example. You don’t get through December 2023 without hearing Santa Baby, released in 1953—seventy years ago.

I remember Eartha Kitt best for Just an Old Fashioned Girl, ”the song that became her signature tune in Britain” in the mid-1950s, according to her obituary in the London Guardian. (Kitt died on Christmas Day 2008 at age 81.)

How could I forget her? There was no voice quite like hers. Plus, to a young-teen English kid listening to adults talk, she carried with her an exciting frisson of the taboo, although I couldn’t understand why. I grasped that it had something to do with sex and something to do with race; but having zero real acquaintance with either thing, couldn’t figure what the adults were chuckling about.

Eartha Kitt seems to have been an intelligent woman, and her personal life was, I think, less of a train wreck than the showbiz average. It’s good to hear her voice, if only for a couple of weeks each year, and to reflect on my own innocence when first I heard it.


The cruelest month    Yes: this December was a healthcare disaster. I told the tale down to mid-month here. (And concerning that early neck problem, I should note that kind Santa left under the tree for me a clever little gadget for neck pain relief. This thing doesn’t just warm and massage, it also talks to you.)

My metabolism went off the rails shortly thereafter: sweat-drenched fevers alternating with shivering fits. Back to the ER on Sunday the 17th.

What seems to have happened was that some opportunistic bug had snuck in among all the torn tissue and ruptured blood vessels of my twisted ankle. (I got pictures, but—fair warning!—they are not for the weak of stomach. And note that these were taken eight days after the fall’n’twist.)

The invader seems to have been MRSA, one of those nasties that lurk in hospitals and doctors’ offices waiting for a chance to jump the border. (Sorry: writing for an immigration-patriot website, I have these metaphors ready to hand.) The hospital would of course never admit that; but they transferred me from the realm of the Orthopaedic Surgeon to the domain of the Infectious Diseases guy, a jovial fellow memorably named Dr. Popp.

Dr. Popp got me admitted as an in-patient and kept me there six days, 17th to 22nd, carpet-bombing me with antibiotics all day long.

Yes, I was home in time for Christmas. That nuking with antibiotics, however, had wreaked havoc among my good bacteria, the ones that live mostly in the gut and help make everything work. Christmas-wise I was a non-participant, lying on the couch listlessly watching the family open presents under the tree.

At month end I’m feeling normal again, except of course for the shattered ankle. I have a date with the orthopaedic surgeon June 5th to find out (I hope) where matters proceed from here.

Many thanks once again to listeners and readers who have written or emailed in with expressions of sympathy and support. God bless you all! I shall give a further report mid-January.


Find the factotum.     I have no complaints about my hospital stay. The place is run as well as it can be, the staff uniformly cheery and helpful.

It is perforce very bureaucratic, though, so the Factotum Principle kicks in.

The Factotum Principle

In any service bureaucracy there is one person who has worked there for years, knows all the rules and all the players. Best of all, this person—the factotum, the fixer—has figured out all the short-cuts and workarounds, knows which rules must be observed, which can be bent and by how much, and which can be safely ignored; knows which manager to appeal to for the highest probability of satisfaction in any situation, and so on.

If you are at the mercy of such an organization, find the factotum. Your dealings with the bureaucracy will go far more smoothly and painlessly under his guidance.

I was fortunate enough to find, among the nurses and aides fluttering around me, the factotum for my wing of the hospital. I won’t embarrass him by giving a name, but… thanks, guy!

Now let’s all sing along with Figaro, the greatest factotum of them all.


Cold War verse.     Cōngming făn bèi cōngming wù (聰 明 反 被 聰 明 误) say the Chinese: ”Smarties outsmart themselves.” We certainly do, as I was reminded early in December.

I was standing around having idle pre-dinner chat with some friends, all of them well-read and one a professional literary gent. The question was raised: Why is there no Cold War poetry?

We need some qualification here. The English-speaking world teems with poets: ask any literary publisher. Supply far exceeds demand. They versify about everything under the Sun. A Google search on ”Cold War poetry” brings up an endless list of websites, many linking to Edward Brunner’s 2004 book of that title.

Sure: but we all understood the questioner to mean that in a gathering like ours there are a handful of poems that everyone recognizes, at least by title, poet, and/or a couple of lines: Shakespeare’s eighteenthWordsworth’s daffodilsLongfellow’s psalmFrost’s ”Stopping by Woods,” and a dozen or so others.

In among there will likely as not be one or two war poems. If there are Brits in the discussion group, it’s a near-certainty you’ll hear a mention of World War One poetry. For the Brits that war was particularly poetic, to the degree that a character in the TV comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth could crack a joke about it.

Flasheart:   … I’m sick of this damn war!—the blood, the noise, the endless poetry!

The Second World War generated some memorable verse too, although nothing like as much as the First, for reasons I surmised here. There was that Beau going in, Magee’s High Flight, Randall Jarrell’s ball turret gunner, and a few others.

When you think about it, in fact, war and poetry have been travelling together through all human history, at any rate since The Iliad. They are natural companions. So, back to the question that was asked in my pre-dinner group chat: Why is there no Cold War poetry—none that anyone bothers to remember?

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to show off.

Derb:  ”There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound …”

The group stared at me. ”Wha?”

”Sara Teasdale,” I told them. ”It’s a Cold War poem.”

Like much else of the loose junk in my head, this came up from an adolescence spent reading all the science fiction I could find. In among that material was of course Ray Bradbury’s classic 1950 (or 1951: online sources disagree) short-story collection The Martian Chronicles. One of those stories has the title ”There will come soft rains,” and Teasdale’s full poem is included halfway through the story.

Bradbury’s story is set in the year 2026. It describes a family house full of clever gadgets, robots, and contraptions that could only be imagined in 1950. The gadgets have survived a nearby nuclear explosion, but none of the human inhabitants has. It’s a very Cold War piece of imagining by Bradbury. He uses Sara Teasdale’s poem to reinforce that.

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

I felt pleased with myself for having come up with a Cold War poem. My companions seemed properly impressed. Score one for Derb.

I had, however, outsmarted myself. Back at home I looked up Sara Teasdale’s poem online to refresh my memory about the whole thing. There it wasThere will come soft rains by Sara Teasdale, 1884-1933.

Say what? Teasdale didn’t even live to see the Cold War! There will come soft rains is about the First World War.

Moral of the story: All that stuff you allowed to fill up your head in the teen years did not automatically organize itself into structured knowledge.

Footnote to the story: The Interesting Literature website covers Bradbury’s story here. It has a link to Wallace Stevens’ A Postcard from the Volcano, which in turn has links down to related themes in other poets: T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, … Imagining what the world is like with humanity wiped out, or just with our present civilization gone and forgotten, or even just what it’s like with oneself gone, was giving poets material long before the Cold War.


Is espionage still a thing?     One memorable feature of the Cold War was espionage of the intimate, personal kind—the kind that made modest fortunes for thriller writers like John le Carré.

At its heart espionage … is not a science—it is an art. There is a reason intelligence officials talk about tradecraft. Espionage requires innate skills. Not everyone can do it.

CIA case officers may be called upon to do many things during their careers, but when it comes down to it, their primary job is spotting, assessing, developing, and recruiting spies. That means getting close to people who are often very objectionable, figuring out what makes them tick, and convincing them to help you by betraying their colleagues and their countries and to trust that you can keep them alive while you do so.

I am not quoting John le Carré there, I am quoting Charles S. Faddis, writing in the October 2023 issue of Imprimis, a Hillsdale College newsletter: Why the CIA No Longer Works—and How to Fix It.

Faddis knows what he’s talking about. He was a CIA operations officer for 20 years, including a spell as chief of station in the Middle East. He’s written several books based on his experiences.

What is Faddis’ answer to the question in my segment title? So far as the USA is concerned, it’s a clear ”No.”

Why is an organization [i.e., the CIA] staffed with highly talented people and provided with unparalleled resources failing to perform its core functions?

There are two reasons: bureaucratization and politicization …

Recruiters no longer search for intangibles or focus on the key psychological traits critical to success is the world of spying. They look at academic degrees, existing levels of language proficiency, and increasingly at things like skin color and sexual orientation …

Of course!

We have buried operations under endless layers of middle management.

That’s why 9/11 came as such a surprise, even though Al Qaeda was a well-known quantity. Heck, they had blown up two of our embassies in Africa and nearly sunk the USS Cole. Yet we had no sources in Al Qaeda.

That decade of the 1990s, following the fall of the U.S.S.R., we really did take a vacation from history. On Faddis’ telling, our intelligence services sure did, sitting back and relaxing from the difficult stuff while paper-pushers and politicians took over. A quarter of the way into the 21st century, the spooks have not yet resumed their proper duties.

Apparently it wasn’t just us, either. Among my other reading this month was Mark Helprin’s striking and very depressing essay in the Fall issue of the Claremont Review of Books on the prospects for Israel’s continued survival. (The essay is also posted at RealClearPolitics here.)

From which:

More than half a century ago, when I lived on various kibbutzim and served in the Israeli army and Air Force, settlements near hostile, infiltration-prone borders would likely have had an illuminated, doubly fenced, guarded perimeter, with watch towers, searchlights, and war dogs racing in the spaces between the parallel, barbed-wire lines … Had the kibbutzim been defended as of old, the massacres almost certainly would not have occurred, at least not at such catastrophic scale. Several Israeli military bases, too, were similarly ill-defended. Why? The answer has universal application and illuminates American failings as well. For the sake of efficiency and ease, advanced countries tend more and more to delegate tasks and responsibilities formerly accomplished and assumed by individuals, families, and civil society both to larger organizations and to technology and/or technique.
Israel at the Precipice Once Again, November 12, 2023

”Bureaucratization and politicization,” yup; although I think we should add gadgetization—the belief that 21st-century electronics can take over any kind of human task. As AI advances and spreads, this will probably get worse.

9/11:  10/7: … there will be more of these surprises. You heard it here first.


Gadgets galore    That gadget to deal with neck pain came from the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. I know that because I’m on the H-S mailing list.

I am also on the mailing list for (deep breath) Sharper ImageWhatever WorksRussell’s for MenHeartland AmericaSignals (”gifts that inform, enlighten, and entertain”), Sporty’s Tool Shop, and Sporty’s Preferred Living. They all have my home address somehow.

Not that I mind. I keep these catalogs in a pile under the coffee table. They are just the thing for half an hour’s idle browsing when I don’t feel up to anything more productive.

What a wealth of human ingenuity is in their pages!

Sure, this is the frivolous fringe of consumer culture. Yet breathes there the man with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, when browsing Whatever Works or the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog: ”Oh, I gotta have one of those!”


Math corner   Brainteaser

Here’s a brainteaser to see out the old year, another one from Southall & Pantaloni’s Geometry Snacks: Bite Size Problems & How to Solve Them.

Everything that looks equilateral here, is; everything that looks like a midpoint, is. What fraction of the big triangle is shaded?


John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.

For years he’s been podcasting at Radio Derb, now available at for no charge. His writings are archived at

Readers who wish to donate (tax deductible) funds specifically earmarked for John Derbyshire’s writings at can do so here.

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