I tell people, quite truthfully, that I have been inside North Korea. For extra effect I sometimes add "… as an illegal immigrant."
Visiting my wife's home province in northeast China sixteen years ago, we took a side trip to the top of Ever-White Mountain, a humongous extinct volcano on the border with North Korea. The mountain's name is Chang Bai Shan in Chinese, Paektu in Korean.
My son and I walked round the crater rim to a sign marking the border. Then we went a few yards further, just so we could say we had been inside North Korea.
Well, it turns out that Ever-White Mountain may not be so extinct. Following some earth tremors in the region, North Korea last year invited some British and American vulcanologists to investigate the mountain. These experts returned to civilization with furrowed brows:
Stephen Grand, a seismologist at the University of Texas at Austin, previously said: "I think the risk of a destructive eruption here is very real."If that sucker blows, a big part of northeast Asia will disappear beneath a yards-thick layer of hot, poisonous ash, with North Korea worst affected.
[ERUPTION WARNING: North Korean supervolcano could blow and cause WORLDWIDE devastation by Sean Martin; Daily Express, January 19th 2017.]
Mount Paektu underwent one of the most devastating eruptions in history in a.d. 946 when it erupted so powerfully that it formed a five kilometre caldera at its summit and produced enough ash that it even showered Japan — almost 1,100km away.Things wouldn't be so great for the rest of us, either, with major effects on the climate worldwide for years afterwards.
One more thing to worry about.
Remembering Heaven Pool. That five-kilometer crater is filled with a beautiful lake, called Heaven Pool in Chinese.
I don't know who was the first European to gaze on Heaven Pool — some Russian, probably — but the first Englishmen to do so were H.E.M. James and his traveling companion Francis Younghusband in June 1886.
At last we got to the top and looked over the edge, and lo! at the bottom of a crater on whose brink we were standing, about three hundred and fifty feet below us, we saw a beautiful lake, its colour of the deepest, most pellucid blue, and, though the wind was howling above, its surface as still as Lake Leman, reflecting the crown of fantastic peaks with which the rugged top of the mountain was adorned. It was indeed a superb spectacle. [Long White Mountain by H.E.M. James (London, 1888), page 261 (Ebook) ]The spectacle was still superb 115 years later when I visited. It wasn't just the lake that got my attention, either. The weird rock formations around the crater rim were so striking I took a small sample home and had it imbedded in lucite as a souvenir.
If that was on the North Korean side of the border — I honestly forget — my theft of a rock from Mount Paektu is probably worth twenty years in a labor camp.
From the Diffident Right. The March 24th edition of Radio Derb included a brief memoir of my student days in London fifty-plus years ago. I got an unusually large email bag about that.
The usual apology about email applies: Everything gets read and pondered (and, where suitable, plagiarized), but time forbids me answering any but a random fraction with the care they deserve.
The volume of email surprised me. I don't write much about my personal history unless I'm desperate for a topic to meet a deadline. That's partly native English diffidence, partly a result of having met enough really interesting people that I find it hard to believe anyone would want to read about my own dull plod through the material world.
Thanks to all who wrote. A common theme — usually phrased as a question — concerned the English national character, as just alluded to. What, people asked me, has happened to the native English? Once they conquered the world with discipline and courage; now they are sunk in drunkenness, hooliganism, and welfare dependency. Why?
As always with matters of national character, the answers are long and complex, too much so for a diary entry. A key point to grasp, though, is that English national character, like so much else in the universe, is binary.
Yes: The impeccably correct English gent and his female counterpart, with their stiff upper lips, good tailoring, and the Three Indifferences (to food, sex, and the weather) are still a feature of the Island Race, as they have been for centuries. So, however, are the drunken louts and their drunken slut consorts. That's been the case for centuries, too. There's a good historical survey of that latter element in Jeremy Paxman's 1998 study of the English national character, Chapter 11.
Perhaps it was exactly this combination of dutiful rigor and feral coarseness that, by some kind of chemistry, made for historical success. The Duke of Wellington famously described his troops as "the scum of the earth … enlisted for drink." I bet he was right; but they won his battles for him.
Some of the great figures of English history incarnated both sides of the binary in a single person, as I noted when writing about soccer hooligans once:
There is a case to be made that English soccer hooligans represent the true soul of our people — that, in fact, England is a nation of hooligans. Many of our national heroes have about them a somewhat questionable quality: Clive of India, Cecil Rhodes, Stamford Raffles. The 16th-century adventurer Sir Francis Drake is regarded as a great patriot and exemplar by all red-blooded Englishmen. Sir Henry Newbolt wrote a fine sentimental poem about him, that used to be memorized by English schoolchildren, and that was set to music by Sir Charles Stanford — the sheer quantity of Sirs here shows you how respectable this man's memory is. Those at the receiving end of his "adventures," however, considered him a lawless pirate, and on the actual historical evidence it is hard to argue that they were wrong.As department store sales assistants say: "There's not much call for that nowadays." The fine old English hooligan spirit, once usefully employed in breaking politicians' windows and defeating the nation's enemies in battle, now has no outlet but drunken brawling. One of its chief driving forces, the old English dislike of foreigners, was found to be an obstacle to mass immigration — the great unquestionable imperative of our age in the Western world — and so was outlawed.
[The Longest, Awfullest Gameby John Derbyshire; National Review, July 17th 2000.]
Welfarism did the rest. Concerning that, a friend emailed me this address from fifteen years ago. It was given by Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew at Imperial College in London. In it, he nostalges about his own student days in London. It can be read as a companion piece to my Radio Derb segment.
Lee arrived in London in 1946, from a background even more provincial than mine seventeen years later. He reminisces about that time, and compares it to the present.
It was a different age and a different generation. After six exhausting years of bombings and privation, Londoners in the 1940s took great pride in themselves, were courteous and disciplined. Bomb sites were cleared, with the bricks neatly piled to one side and little make-shift gardens created …From the Book of Clem. The transcript of that Lee Kuan Yew speech reminded me that I am possibly the last person alive that knows how to spell "Attlee."
I watched Britain at the beginning of its experiment with the welfare state; the Atlee government started to build a society that attempted to look after its citizens from cradle to grave …
I did not understand what a cosseted life would do to the spirit of enterprise of a people, diminishing their desire to achieve and succeed …
Clement Attlee — "Clem" to his fans — was Prime Minister of the U.K. in the years immediately following WW2. The thing everyone thinks they know about him is that Winston Churchill described him, on the floor of the House of Commons, as "a sheep in sheep's clothing."
That story has been debunked. It anyway doesn't suit the man who made Britain a nuclear power. Clem was intelligent, brave, and, when occasion demanded, forceful.
He was, though, a quiet man, out on the right-hand tail of the diffidence bell curve — a sort of English Calvin Coolidge.
As with Coolidge, there is a modest apocrypha of Attlee wit. Here's my favorite story.
After Attlee retired from government it was felt proper that a biography should be written. A biographer, Kenneth Harris, was duly assigned. He hiked out to Attlee's house in Buckinghamshire with a tape recorder to interview his subject.
Attlee didn't give away much about himself. Harris found it particularly difficult to get him to talk about his religious beliefs, a thing readers were much more interested in fifty years ago than they would be today. He was finally reduced to asking: "Would you say you are an agnostic?"
Clem (after, one can't help imagining, a long pause for thought): "I don't know."
When Englishmen meet. Just one more on the English national character.
In a March 12th post Steve Sailer used the word "Musselmen" to refer facetiously to modern Turks. That woke distant echoes for me.
I first learned the word with spelling "Mussulman," plural "Mussulmans." I just checked with the OED: Yep, that's how they list it, although they allow seventeen variant spellings. Definition: "A Mohammedan." "Mussulman" is just a corruption of "Muslim."
The manner of my learning the word was, that in the summer of 1960 I sat for the General Certificate of Education (Oxford Examining Board) in English literature. There were three set books for that year's exam: Macbeth, The Rape of the Lock, and Eothen.
Neither William Shakespeare nor Alexander Pope had much to say about Mohammedans that I can recall, but Eothen was all over them, and referred to them as "Mussulmans."
Eothen's author, Alexander Kinglake, was an Englishman of good family and education. In 1834, aged 25, he and another young man traveled through the Ottoman Empire, from the Balkans to Constantinople, across Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. Eothen is a record of the journey.
I know, it doesn't sound promising, but actually Eothen is a charming book. That describes it exactly: it has charm. The author is intelligent and observant, and gets a lot of information across; but the pleasure of the book is in his impressions and reflections — wry, witty, sometimes silly, but always entertaining, and very English.
To illustrate that last quality, here is Kinglake riding on a camel across the Sinai desert towards Egypt.
In the far distance he sees another party coming towards him. Soon he perceives that the person on the lead camel has "European dress." Uh-oh. Then, as the distance between them closes, he sees to his alarm that this person is in fact wearing "an English shooting-jacket."
Sure enough, it's another Englishman. This raises the appalling possibility that Kinglake may have to stop and make conversation. The horror! He has an anxiety attack.
As we approached each other it became with me a question whether we should speak. I thought it likely that the stranger would accost me, and in the event of his doing so I was quite ready to be as sociable and chatty as I could be according to my nature; but still I could not think of anything particular that I had to say to him. Of course, among civilised people the not having anything to say is no excuse at all for not speaking, but I was shy and indolent, and I felt no great wish to stop and talk like a morning visitor in the midst of those broad solitudes. The traveller perhaps felt as I did, for except that we lifted our hands to our caps and waved our arms in courtesy, we passed each other as if we had passed in Bond Street. Our attendants, however, were not to be cheated of the delight that they felt in speaking to new listeners and hearing fresh voices once more. The masters, therefore, had no sooner passed each other than their respective servants quietly stopped and entered into conversation. As soon as my camel found that her companions were not following her she caught the social feeling and refused to go on. I felt the absurdity of the situation, and determined to accost the stranger if only to avoid the awkwardness of remaining stuck fast in the Desert whilst our servants were amusing themselves. When with this intent I turned round my camel I found that the gallant officer who had passed me by about thirty or forty yards was exactly in the same predicament as myself. I put my now willing camel in motion and rode up towards the stranger, who seeing this followed my example and came forward to meet me. He was the first to speak. He was much too courteous to address me as if he admitted the possibility of my wishing to accost him from any feeling of mere sociability or civilian-like love of vain talk. On the contrary, he at once attributed my advances to a laudable wish of acquiring statistical information, and accordingly, when we got within speaking distance, he said, "I daresay you wish to know how the plague is going on at Cairo?"Here's a related story from my own family.
My uncle Fred Littlehales — a taciturn fellow even by English standards — served in the British army in India during the 1940s. Waiting for a change of trains at a remote railroad halt somewhere in the subcontinent, by sheer fantastic coincidence he encountered one of his childhood playmates, now also a soldier but in a different regiment. Their entire conversation, according to family lore, went as follows.
Fred: "Hello, Kirkham."
Kirkham: "Hello, Fred."
Walker Connor, RIP. Just too late for the February Diary, I note the passing of political scientist Walker Connor on the last day of that month. He was 90 years old.
Prior to reading his obituary I knew nothing about Connor but his 1994 book Ethnonationalism, which I have quoted from occasionally — here, for example, and here, and here, and here, and … Now I come to look it up, I've gotten fair mileage from that book.
Connor had one big idea. That's not to put him down: He was a hard-working and conscientious scholar, who also had many lesser ideas. One big idea is one more than most of us have in a lifetime.
Connor's big idea, which you carry around with you for ever after reading his book, is the difference between a state, which is an administrative-geographical unit, and a nation.
What's a nation? Connor offers his definition in several different wordings. Most of the nine essays that make up his book have one. Here's the one from Chapter Eight.
Our answer, then, to that often asked question, "What is a nation?" is that it is a group of people who feel that they are ancestrally related. It is the largest group that can command a person's loyalty because of felt kinship ties; it is, from this perspective, the fully extended family.Unlike Eothen, Connor's book does not have charm. It's rather dry. Again, that's OK: the guy was a scholar. Charm, though always to be welcomed, is not a necessary scholarly virtue.
And Ethnonationalism is at least way more readable than the book shelved right next to it in my study: Alesina and Spolaore's The Size of Nations (2003). How dry is that book? Check out a sample page.
On Connor's principle, Alesina and Spolaore's book should really be titled The Size of States. I guess they assumed people would think that a book with that title was about Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, etc. They've read Connor; at any rate they have a reference to him (p. 226). Why didn't they square the circle by calling their book The Size of Countries? I don't know, you'd have to ask them.
If the size of countries is interesting to you but you don't want to wrestle with Nash equilibria and multivariable calculus, there are some cool graphics here.
The paradox of nationalism. The key point about the size of nations is spelled out in Chapter 13 of Alesina and Spolaore's book:
We think of a nation-state as the result of trade-offs between the benefits of economies of scale (broadly defined) in the provisions of public goods and policies versus the costs of heterogeneity of preferences in the population over the same public goods and policies.The paradox of nationalism in the present age is that economic globalization (boo! hiss!) makes small nations more viable (yay!) by making those economies of scale within countries less important.
This point was made very elegantly by His Serene Highness Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein, in an interview last May for The Clarion Review.
I'll leave you to read the interview for yourself. I just want to marvel at the existence of Liechtenstein, a tiny country — fifteen miles north to south, five miles east to west — straddling the border between between Switzerland and Austria. Also at a modern European ruler — an exceptionally sensible and capable one, to judge from that interview and Liechtenstein's fourth-in-the-world ranking for GDP per capita — bearing a title like "His Serene Highness."
After Napoleon wound up the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 Liechtenstein somehow got left out of subsequent arrangements. The country has kept some degree of autonomy ever since. It sounds like a very nice place indeed.
Other things equal, small countries are better places to live than large ones. The snag is, of course, that other things never are equal. You have to factor in, for example, human biodiversity. The Liechtensteiners are Germanic.
And then there is location, location, location. Having only Switzerland and Austria for neighbors could hardly be improved upon. A state the size of Liechtenstein squinched in between, say, China and North Korea, or Eritrea and Sudan, would not fare so well … although perhaps that too just comes down to HBD.
Whatever: If anyone knows of a people-smuggling ring that can fix me up with Liechtenstein citizenship, I'm definitely in the market.
The very model of a modern movie theater. The Mrs and I went to the movies for the first time in a couple of years. I mean, we actually went to the local movie theater, bought tickets and popcorn, and sat through a movie in company with many strangers.
Holy Technicolor, Batman! In our absence the American movie palace has totally reinvented itself.
Gone are the pack-'em-in, knees-to-the-chin rows of cramped, uncomfortable seats with a cup holder for your soda (although not as long gone as when the cup holders were ashtrays). Our seats were big, lush barcalounger affairs, spaced generously apart in pairs. The entire room seated just a hundred and fifty.
A hundred and fifty! The Chicago Uptown theater, a classic of the movie-palace heyday, seated five thousand: "It employed over 130 people, including two firemen, a nurse, and 34 orchestral musicians." The screening room at our local AMC Loew's the other day would probably have fitted into the orchestra pit of Chicago Uptown.
With Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant, and Ultra HD, I guess the surprising thing is that movie theaters still exist at all. Barcaloungers notwithstanding, there was something quaintly retro about the whole experience. I'm guessing that will have been the last time we go to a movie theater.
So what did we see? La La Land. How was it? Not bad. Light as air; not anti-white in any obvious way (and so an exception among current movies); Emma Stone has a sort of pasty Hibernian appeal I rather like. The music was pleasant, though perfectly unmemorable.
Watching La La Land was, to borrow a simile from Orwell, like eating soft-centered chocolates. But hey, it got us out of the house.
La La Land wasn't my movie of the month, though. My movie of the month, downloaded from Netflix to our living-room, was Memento, Christopher Nolan's 2000 thriller about a man who has lost his short-term memory.
Memento is a clever movie, structured to put you inside the head of a guy who can't remember what happened fifteen minutes ago. From the synopsis:
The movie alternates between color and black and white sequences. The black and white sequences proceed in chronological order, while the color sequences proceed in reverse chronological order. The forward black and white scenes and the reverse color scenes alternate until they meet in the middle of the story at the end of the film.You either like this kind of thing or you don't. Guys probably like it more than gals. Mrs Derbyshire hated it … but it looks as though the marriage will survive.
Hell is other people. Do I have a book of the month to recommend? No, I don't.
I haven't done much reading recently. I haven't been very productive work-wise either, for which I apologize. What's happened is, I have slipped back into an old addiction.
To be precise, I've been doing a jigsaw puzzle. I used to do one a year: a 1,500- or 2,000-piece effort at Christmas and the month or so following. Then, for Christmas 2014, a friend gifted me a 9,000-piecer.
I started that one on my usual schedule, but 9,000 pieces is a lot. It was late September 2015 when I finished it, having done very little else with my free time for those nine months.
No doubt impressed by my success, the same kind friend gifted me another 9,000-piecer for Christmas 2015. I was badly behind on home repairs, so didn't open the box until late last year, and didn't really get started until December.
Now I'm lost again. This thing is seven feet by four, so I have taken over the dining-room for it, to Mrs Derbyshire's eye-rolling resignation. It's about one-third done. I'm trying to pace myself sensibly, with proper respect to matters of secondary importance (sleep, food, hygiene, home maintenance, work), But it's awfully difficult to pass through the dining room without pausing to place just a few pieces.
The picture is Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, painted 500 years ago (perhaps plus a few: Bosch died in 1516 and the picture was first recorded in 1517). It's a triptych: a big center panel and two side panels that can be closed over it. You can buy the jigsaw puzzle from Amazon.
The thing about doing a really big puzzle like this is, you get intimately acquainted with the work, and so at some remove with the artist. On that basis I can tell you with fair confidence that Bosch was one very weird dude.
I've nearly completed the rightmost panel, which depicts Hell. (Mrs D amuses herself by asking, much too frequently, "Are you out of Hell yet?" Har har de har har, honey.)
Bosch's Hell is definitely hellish, with weird and horrid tortures going on. People, mostly naked, are being impaled, eaten, and crucified. There is an anal sub-theme, with things going up people's bottoms. In one corner the androphagy and anality are combined: A monster eats people then poops them out over a pit — into which, adding insult to injury, one goblin is himself pooping and another is barfing.
The main impression you get from Bosch's hell, though, is of overcrowding. Great multitudes of people are jammed together, some of them in armies. Was the artist just a loner, who would have agreed with the Jean-Paul Sartre character that "Hell is other people"? The left-hand panel, depicting Paradise, has only three inhabitants: Adam, Eve, and God.
No, that can't be it. The middle panel of the triptych is well-populated too, but in a spacious way. There people are socializing freely; the background multitude is a carnival parade, mot a marauding army. It's the coerced togetherness that makes Hell hellish: the togetherness of the cattle wagon, the labor camp, the punishment battalion, the boarding school.
"Heaven for climate, Hell for company," said Mark Twain. That assumes you can pick and choose your companions. In Hell, you can't.
Math Corner. Did you know that this year marks the centenary of the discovery — actually, I guess, just the naming — of Woodall primes?
Matt is one of those people — Srinivasa Ramanujan is of course the archetype — who likes numbers in an intimate way. For people of this rare breed, every number has a personality (numberality?) that is interesting and engaging in some fashion.
There are some really good and fun math resources on the internet now. I'll make a point of posting about any that come to my attention. VDARE.com readers who spot any that I haven't mentioned are welcome to send the links to me.
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’s had two books published by VDARE.com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and From the Dissident Right II: Essays 2013. His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.