DERB'S JUNE DIARY: [7 ITEMS] Milestones, Muggeridge, MANIA, And Math
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 Milestones.     A hot, slow, still month, the only social event of any note a sad one (more later). I trimmed my hedges, mowed my lawn, walked my dog, paid my estimated taxes, showed up for my annual physical.

Concerning that last, I went over all the numbers with our family physician. You know the numbers I mean: PSA, HDL, MPV, triglycerides, urobilinogen, yada, yada.

That yielded a pleasant surprise: This year’s numbers are better than last year’s. I’m improving with age! A few more turns of the calendrical cycle and I’ll be competing in the Olympic decathlon. Yee-hah!

I’m actually heading into a stretch of years each of which contains a major milestone.

  • June 13th next year, 2025, if I don’t take any absences in the meantime, my Radio Derb podcast will be Number 1,000.

  • July 4th 2026: 250 years since the Declaration of Independence. A quarter of a millennium! Onwards to the half!

  • August 6th 2026 my lady and I celebrate our Ruby Wedding anniversary: forty years of love, trust, companionship, parenting, and fighting for the TV remote.

  • September 4th 2026 marks 1,550 years since the end of the Roman Empire in the West.

  • July 22nd 2027 will (God willing) be my 30,000th day on Earth.

  • At some other date in 2027 the house we have lived in since 1992 will be 100 years old. I really must get down to the Town Hall and look up the land records for a precise date.

  • And at some other date in 2027, presumably in the fall, our grandson Michael—born January 2022—will begin his formal schooling.

I like milestones—something to look forward to. I bet I can cook up some for 2028, 2029, … but these will do for now.


 A Knight of the Woeful Countenance: Muggeridge on Orwell     George Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four, ”the most influential piece of political fiction in history” (Ed West), was published in the U.K. June 8, 1949 (June 13th in the U.S.A.), seventy-five years ago this month.

UK first edition US first edition

I have nothing more to say about Orwell and his work than I have already said, and the 75th anniversary of Nineteen-Eighty-Four has anyway already inspired plenty of thoughtful commentary, Ed West’s piece up there among the best.

I do, though, have a favorite word-portrait of Orwell written by a friend and coeval (three months older) of his who knew him well. This is ”A Knight of the Woeful Countenance” by Malcolm Muggeridge, which I read in The World of George Orwell (1971), a collection of essays by various writers, edited by Miriam Gross.

Whether Muggeridge’s piece was written specially for the collection or first published elsewhere, Ms. Gross does not tell us, but the absence of any acknowledgment in her book suggests the former. I only know that when I went looking for Mugg’s essay on the internet around the year 2010 I could find no trace of it.

Wanting to quote from it for some purpose I’ve forgotten, with an added hyperlink so that my readers could, if they wanted to, read more of what Muggeridge wrote, I copied the entire essay to PDF format and posted it at my own website, where it still quietly lingers.

”A Knight of the Woeful Countenance”—which title, by the way, is taken from Cervantes’ description of Don Quixote—is a brilliant account of Orwell the man, and in places very funny. By all means read the whole thing, all 5,000-plus words of it, at the link I’ve just given. If you haven’t the time, though, here’s a short representative extract.

The date here is early 1949. At the beginning of January Orwell had moved to the sanatorium mentioned in Muggeridge’s first sentence. There he finished writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, and went over the proofs in February and March. That places Muggeridge’s visit sometime between the book’s completion in January and its publication in early June. Orwell died from tuberculosis the following January in London.

Muggeridge and his friend the novelist Anthony Powell are neighbors in London.

When word came that Orwell’s health had again collapsed, and that he was in a sanatorium near Stroud in Gloucestershire, we decided to go and see him.

We walked the last bit of the way. It was a very beautiful day, and I remember feeling unreasonably cheerful considering the purpose of our journey. Orwell was in a wooden hut by himself. He looked terribly wasted and thin, and I think I knew then that he was likely to die. Visiting tuberculosis patients was, for me, part of the experience of childhood; my father’s family was riddled with the disease, and when I was seven I developed symptoms myself and had to go away into the country. So I was familiar with that particular soft, purring cough; that almost mystical transparency of the skin—like a thin sheet of fibre-glass with a furious furnace the other side. Orwell was in good spirits. He had managed to finish Nineteen Eighty-Four, but said little about it. He was as secretive about his work as about everything else. Incidentally, Avril [Orwell’s sister] told me that this secretiveness was hereditary; their father had been just the same. Powell and I had been laughing over an incident in a novel by Koestler; the hero, in seducing one of the female characters, through being circumcised, reveals that he is a Jew. Orwell was not as amused as we were. Of course it’s not true, he said, that in this country only Jews are circumcised; but it is true that, generally speaking, the upper classes are and the lower classes aren’t. He cited his own case at [tony boys’ boarding school] Eton, where in the changing-rooms he was very ashamed at being uncircumcised, and kept himself covered. It was a vintage Orwell point. On the way back I suggested to Powell that he should tell Evelyn Waugh, who then lived in the neighborhood of the sanatorium, that Orwell was there, so that he might visit him. Whether at Powell’s suggestion or someone else’s, I learnt afterwards that Waugh did go and see Orwell several times, and afterwards corresponded with him in a very delightful way. Despite all Waugh’s efforts to appear to be an irascible, deaf old curmudgeon, a sort of innate saintliness kept breaking through. I should have loved to see them together; complementary figures, his country gentleman’s outfit [pictured right] and Orwell’s proletarian one both straight out of back numbers of Punch.

Some months before moving to that sanatorium, and so well before those visits, Orwell had jotted down some notes for an article he planned to write about Waugh and his works. Those notes survived and are reproduced in Volume 4 of The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell. Here is their last paragraph. Orwell:

Conclude. Waugh is abt as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.


 A Story from the Corporate World.     After dinner the other evening a neighbor came over and we sat drinking, chatting, and watching TV. A commercial for the shirt company came on.

My drinking buddy: ”Here’s a thing I bet you don’t know, Derb. The original idea of that firm’s founder was to incorporate in Nantucket. UNTUCKit, Nantucket, see?”

Me: ”Yeah, I get it. And you’re right, I didn’t know that. So now it’s UNTUCKit of Nantucket, eh? Cute.”

He: ”Actually, no. The paperwork for incorporation in Massachusetts was too burdensome. The founder said: ’Heck, we’ll incorporate in New Jersey instead… damn it.’”

I think I’ve remembered that correctly, word for word, but… we’d had a few drinks.


 Find Your Work.     ”Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.” So wrote Thomas Carlyle (Past and Present, Chapter XI).

That is usually quoted in reference to creative endeavors: the poet or painter toiling away at his craft in obscure poverty, hoping for future recognition. Vincent Van Gogh used it that way in one of the letters to his brother.

It is true in all kinds of less romantic contexts, though. I encountered one such this month.

The actual context was a wake; more precisely, the lunch given after a wake by the family of the deceased to all who had shown up at the funeral parlor.

The wake was for our neighbor Joe, who died June 16th after much pain at age 74. Our family and Joe’s have known each other for thirty years, exchanging many kindnesses in the suburban-neighborly way: child-minding, house-watching, dog-walking, loan of tools and garden equipment, and so on. Rest in peace, buddy.

So Joe’s family was giving us this catered lunch after the wake. One half of those assembled didn’t know the other half, so there were many introductions and brief biographies exchanged.

One of the undertakers was present. His obvious relevance to the occasion aside, he was an old friend of the family and they had recruited him to help with the arrangements.

I spent some time chatting with this undertaker. He was lively, cheerful, and witty (although never disrespectful to the dead)—not at all what I expected from one in his line of work.

In our lunchtime chat I learned that he had started his working life as a high-school English teacher. As he was settling in to that career, though, suburban Long Island was afflicted with an unusual number of teenage suicides.

As a teacher, he had witnessed some of the parental grief close at hand.

It was distressing, of course; but he found himself coping well with these mourners, giving them much comfort and finding great satisfaction himself from having done so. He decided to change careers, to become an undertaker.

At the actual funeral the day after the wake I watched him supervise, with flawless professionalism, the pallbearers manipulating the casket in and out of hearse and church.

Being confronted every day with the dead and the grieving would not suit many people. It certainly wouldn’t suit me. It plainly suits him very well, though. This is a man who has found his work.


 A Fine Bromance.     Was it very immature of me to emit an involuntary snicker when scanning the Contents page of my June 22nd paper edition Economist?

First listed under the ”Asia” subheading was:  ”28  Putin meets Kim.”

Second, directly underneath that, was:  ”29  Same-sex marriage.”

That second story is nothing to do with Russia or Korea. It’s about the June 18th decision by the senate of Thailand to vote through a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, the first such legislation in Southeast Asia.

Having actually lived for a while in one of the less salubrious neighborhoods of downtown Bangkok, I’m surprised it’s taken the Thais this long… but that’s by the way. I hope [another snicker] Vladimir and Jong Un will be very happy together.


 Fiction of the Month: Lionel Shriver’s Mania.     In my May 31st podcast I passed comment on an article about demography in the previous week’s edition of the London Spectator. The article, by novelist Lionel Shriver, was titled What will Europe look like in the future?

In my commentary I noted that Ms. Shriver had a new novel published in April, but that I had not yet read it.

Well, now I have read it. The title is Mania.

Like Ms. Shriver’s 2016 novel The Mandibles, it is an imagined account of the USA. in a colossal self-inflicted crisis; but while the Mandibles crisis was financial, the one in Mania is cultural.

The temporal framing of the two novels is also different. The Mandibles disaster was all set in the future, years 2029 to 2047. Mania is cast as an alternate-history narrative. It begins in an alternate 2011, proceeds through to an alternate 2023, then continues to an imagined 2027.

The Mania catastrophe is brought about by one of those egalitarian hysterias to which the Western world, perhaps especially the English-speaking part of it, is susceptible. We—Western Man—have a peculiar relationship to human nature. Great numbers of us detest it and fiercely deny key aspects of it. Those numbers are great enough that they can impose their denials as imperatives on all of society.

In the West today there are two mighty pillars of denial dominating our social imperatives:

Mania does not concern itself with those. They are barely even mentioned. In its imagined alternate world of 2011-2023 Western society dwells in the shadow of:

  • Denial Pillar Three: There is no such thing as intelligence.

The dominant ideology goes by the name Mental Parity. Its champions aim to stamp out the evil of cerebral supremacy. Related words from both ends of the cognitive spectrum—”stupid,” ”dumb,” ”idiot,” ”smart,” ”intelligent,” ”genius,” …—have been declared taboo. Nobody is any smarter, or any dumber, than anyone else. There is no such thing as intelligence!

Pearson Converse, the novel’s first-person narrator, is a low-ranking college teacher born in 1972. When we first meet her in alternate 2011 she has ”a stalwart live-in partner” and three children but has been long estranged from her Jehovah’s Witnesses parents.

A little behind the cultural curve, Pearson has to have the new social rules explained to her by Emory, a girlfriend from her middle-school years, now a minor TV journalist and—of course—media-savvy.

Don’t ask where anyone went to school. Don’t tell anyone where you went to school, even if you went to Yale—well, especially if you went to Yale! And that includes secondary schools. Never drop casually in conversation that you graduated from Andover or Groton. Don’t ever mention, or fish for, IQ, obviously, but also SAT and ACT scores, or grade point averages. You’re even meant to keep your trap shut about how well you did on newspaper quizzes on the major stories of the week. And forget asking or telling about a performance on Jeopardy!

As events proceed, our culture is purged of all references to cognitive inequality. In an ill-considered flush of defiance, Pearson assigns for the students on her Introduction to International Literature survey course a certain novel by Dostoyevsky with a very short title.

That gets her a summons from the college’s Dean of Cognitive Equality.

The parallels with our actual cancel culture are plain. While, as I said, the author does not concern herself with race or sex denialism, still it is not hard—not at all hard—to see whence comes her inspiration.

Denial Pillars One and Two are not altogether left out of the story. At one point Emory scoffs at Pillar One. This is in the run-up to the presidential election in alternate 2012.

”I’m going to miss Obama,” I said. ”And for the first black president to step down after one term is a bad historical look.”

”Nobody gives a crap any more about his being a black president,” Emory said. ”He’s a know-it-all president. It’s death. Even Romney has kept a foot on his own head—little words, Me, keep you more mun-neee … Obama just keeps spooling out elegantly subordinated sentences with that arch, amused, slightly despairing look on his face. He doesn’t get it.”

And sure enough, the 2012 victory goes to… Joe Biden!

Pop culture suffers accordingly. Just as Gone with the Wind and the older Tom and Jerry cartoons—the ones with the black maid—have been flushed down the real world’s memory hole, in Mania movies like A Beautiful Mind and Forrest Gump can no longer be screened, along with TV shows portraying smart people (The Big Bang Theory) or dumb people (Woody in Cheers, ”even the starfish in SpongeBob Square Pants, for Pete’s sake…”)

It all ends badly, of course, with a neat twist at the end that I won’t spoil for you. I will, though, give you this from near the end. Pearson is older and wiser.

[B]y this point it’s indisputable that human beings will believe anything.

Accordingly, a wide variety of historical phenomena that once confounded me now seem explicable, if not ordained. I’m no longer astonished by the Holocaust, and there’s no country in the world that I would deem impervious to the modern equivalent of a Nazi takeover. Rather, I figure that full-blown fascism in, say, the U.S., the UK, Australia, France, or modern Germany, for that matter, could manifest itself within approximately three weeks. Mao’s cultural revolution, Stalin’s labor camps, Cambodia’s killing fields—they now strike me as perfectly normal. Likewise the cult of Scientology, Jonestown, Waco, and the Witnesses I grew up with. I’m not in the least surprised that some people think a single drop of tincture diluted by a hundred thousand gallons of water will cure cancer, that the murder of small children will protect them from the devil, or that we are eternally living in the ”end-times,” after which exactly 144,000 people will ascend to heaven and rule the earth in concert with Jesus Christ. Backhandedly, I have come to give my parents a bit more credit. Sure, what they believed was nuts, but that merely made them just like everyone else.

I know the feeling, Ma’am, I know it well.


 Math Corner.     Here’s a brainteaser I’ve stolen from Bill Gasarch, although the wording here is mine.

Define a positive whole number N to be self-descriptive if it meets all the following conditions.

  • Written in the usual way using decimal digits from 0 to 9, it has eight digits.

  • The right-most digit, in the units position, records how many zeros there are in N.

  • The second digit from the right, in the tens position, records how many ones there are in N …

And so on, heading leftwards digit by digit, to

  • The seventh digit from the right, in the millions position, records how many sixes there are in N.

But then

  • The lead digit—i.e., the leftmost digit, in the tens-of-millions position—records how many different digits N has (including itself).

Do self-descriptive numbers actually exist? If so, how many are there? Can you find one?



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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