Derb's October Diary: Scenic Grandeur, White Heartland, Canada's Ellis Island, Etc.
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Note:  All my diaries back to 2001 are archived here.
The Great Northeastern Birthday Tour.     Highlight of the month was another long car trip. I have posted the itinerary and some pictures here.

This was payback to Mrs. Derbyshire, who back in June sat patient and uncomplaining through my birthday tour of Civil War battlefields. Her birthday's in October, so we did what she wanted to do: view the fall colors.

Mrs. Derb and TobyThough I say it I shouldn't, I am a championship-class vacation planner. I worked out a ten-day tour on an Excel spreadsheet, points of interest carefully selected, mileages worked out. I hunted down pet-friendly lodgings; the Mrs won't even consider putting the family dog in a kennel, he had to go with us.

Canada's on the itinerary, so I arranged for the pooch's international health certificate. That was quite a trick. The certificate's only valid for ten days. We were leaving home on the 4th, crossing into Canada on the 8th, then crossing back to the U.S.A. on the 12th — i.e. the ninth day of travel. Our family vet, bless her, was amenable to an appointment on the morning of the 4th, giving us a day or two leeway.

When I report one of these jaunts after the event, readers and Radio Derb listeners email in to tell me they are on that itinerary, and if I'd posted about it in advance they'd have been delighted to buy us dinner.

Well, we'd have been delighted, too. We love meeting sympathetic people, and we love having dinner bought for us. Telling the world your house is going to be empty for ten days is, however, household-management-wise, suboptimal.

Scenic high point.     Really hard to choose. I'm just going to declare a bunch of ties for first place:

  • For Hudson-River-School scenic grandeur: Lake Champlain and surroundings.
  • Lovely unspoiled woodlands: Southeastern Maine, where Mrs D took this picture.
  • Wide vistas from a height: Cadillac Mountain. You can drive to the top. No, you don't need to be driving a Cadillac, but you do need to get a parking permit from the visitors center before you start up the mountain.
  • Noble prospects: The Fundy Trail Parkway. The Parkway doesn't go anywhere (yet); when you get to the end, you have to turn and go back. This is no hardship, though; the views are sensational.
  • Pretty seaside town: Ogunquit, Maine. Take a couple of hours to walk the Marginal Way. Personally I found the prettiness a bit over the top, but the Mrs. now wants to move there. (Although the wild rocky shoreline does much to reduce the over-the-topness. It's like the west coast of Ireland; as if the land has some rock memory of them having once been near-enough the same place, before plate tectonics worked its magic.)
New England Gothic high point.     Eastport, Maine — the easternmost city in the U.S.A., they are glad to tell you. (And don't try to ace them with Alaska.)

The October CountryWe stayed at the Milliken House, a fine old (1840s) place, lovingly decorated inside, that might have escaped from one of Ray Bradbury's early stories. Not that there was anything macabre going on. Mary Williams, the proprietress, is charming and efficient, and served us the best breakfast of our entire trip.

Eastport is as deep into the sticks as I have been for a long time.

Me, to Ms Williams: "I guess it gets real quiet here in the winter."

She: "Well, sometimes a car comes along the road."

White prole heartland.     That entire coastal stretch, through Maine and New Brunswick then round into Nova Scotia, is white prole. There are factories making things; we toured one, courtesy of a friend in management there.

Median age in the region seems to be high, to the degree it's noticeable to the naked eye. You see lots of geezers and middle-aged folk, not so many kids and youngsters. I guess there needs to be some discounting for this being a coastal area in off-season, when a lot of geezers, their kids long out of school, take low-cost vacations. Even among natives, though, and away from the resorts, it's an older demographic.

In a conversation with some locals in Nova Scotia, I heard this: "Young people don't want to hang around here. There's nothing happening. They all head off to Montreal, Toronto, the States …"

Not that the region is totally bereft of yuppies and hipsters. In Halifax we went to a comedy club. The audience was wall-to-wall young urban sophisticates. Bantering with one of the comics, I declared myself a Trump supporter. If lynching was a thing hipsters did, there would have been one right there.

Our masters are of course hard at work solving the white prole problem. In Lewiston, Maine, they have pretty much solved it by shipping in Somalis: see Ann Corcoran's aggregation of Lewiston items at Refugee Resettlement Watch.

A reminder of Lost Eden.     Stereotype accuracy alert: Canadians really are nice; nicer than New Yorkers, at any rate.

My wife and I independently noticed that if you step off the sidewalk into the road in a Canadian town, cars a hundred feet away slow to let you cross. In Long Island they speed up to mow you down. In New York City they mow you down, then a cop pins a jaywalking ticket to your mangled corpse.

Here is a thing that happened to us in Saint John, New Brunswick. We left our hotel in that town for the 250-mile drive to Halifax. I missed the expressway turn, though, and got lost in a tangle of residential streets.

Rosie nagged me to power up the GPS gadget; but I resist gadgetry, and even more stubbornly resist wifely nagging, so I rolled down the window and asked a local for directions.

The local was some kind of maintenance worker. He had a truck parked, with a flatbed trailer that had some equipment on it. This was early morning; he'd plainly just arrived and was preparing to set up. When I asked for directions he frowned and scratched his head.

(Scratching one's head when baffled, like shaking one's fist when angry, is a thing people do a lot in novels but very rarely in life. This guy, I swear, scratched his head. It was a round, florid, almost bald head on a thick neck, of the kind that makes an Englishman instinctively think: "Irish.")

"I could take yeh faster than tell yeh," he said at last in a ripe Canadian accent. "Follow oos."

Before I could decline he'd gone to his truck, beckoning his assistant to do the same. We followed them, with their trailer and all, for ten minutes at least, through the maze of streets to the expressway.

You don't find that kind of courtesy much nowadays. It's gone the way of hitch-hiking and bicycle pumps clipped to the frame of parked bikes; all part of our slide to a low-trust Third World lifestyle. It was nice, if a little sad, to be reminded of our Lost Eden.

Canada's Ellis Island.     "For crying out loud, Derb," I hear the editors muttering, "Don't you have at least one on-topic segment in this diary?"

You bet I do. Halifax, Nova Scotia was the main point of entry for immigrants to Canada in the twentieth century. Pier 21, on the Halifax waterfront, was Canada's equivalent of Ellis Island. It has been converted into a Museum of Immigration, and we spent half a day browsing around there. (Before heading over to the craft brewery opposite. Work, then pleasure.)

The diction of the written matter accompanying the Museum exhibits is of course all early 21st century PC, with much breathless huffing about "discrimination," "diversity," and "colour bars." Through the Narrative fog, though, you can see a sensible and humane determination on the part of Canadians a hundred years ago to avoid duplicating the U.S.A.'s race problem.

Sample, referring to the year 1910:

C.A. Speers, tasked to report on "negro colonies" in Canada for the immigration department, commented on the "peculiar prejudice of our Canadian and Anglo-Saxon people that … want this to be retained as a white man's country." Despite sympathetic findings for Black immigrants in his report, Speers concluded: "In my many years of experience with the Department, I have endeavoured to be just and accord to all people a justice for their virtues. I do not impeach [African Americans] with any lack of industrious habit nor would I impugn their honesty of purpose, but … I would consider it unwise to permit them to come in large numbers to our country, as they would soon assume such proportions that we might be confronted with the same difficulties, political and social, as the American Republic is dealing with to-day."

[The Colour Bar at the Canadian Border: Black American Farmers, by Steve Schwinghamer, Historian; Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.]

I suppose that by present-day standards this is unspeakably racist, but personally I can't actually see anything wrong with Mr Speers' point of view. What is wrong with it?

Followers in folly.     The story of Canadian immigration overall is one of imitation in both wisdom and folly. The imitatee has of course been Uncle Sam. From the late 19th century on, Canadian immigration patterns and laws tracked the U.S.A.'s at only a year or two's distance.

As here, no-one much gave any thought to immigration before 1900. Canada was a big, empty country that needed filling. There was not even such a thing as Canadian citizenship until 1946. Before that Canadians were "British subjects resident in Canada."

There was a great surge of immigrants in the decades before WW1, leading to some legislative stirrings. Immigration fell off during the war; then, postwar, there was restrictive legislation, including some targeted at East Asians.

Canada followed our 1965 Act with a similar one of their own in 1967. This was the origin of the Canadian "points system" that so many American restrictionists admire.

Unfortunately the legislation of 1967 and following years established family-reunification and refugee categories that opened Canada to innumerable persons outside the scope of the points system. By 2002 we were reporting here on that:

Quite a few Americans argue that Canada's points system, which in theory rewards immigrants who have skills, speak the national languages etc. etc. is something the U.S. should emulate. But the practice is very different. Stoffman relates a conversation with U.S. economist George Borjas: "He was disappointed when I informed him … that the skilled portion of Canada's immigration intake was down to 23%. 'Why did it shrink way down?' he asked from his Harvard office. 'Why did the Canadians allow this to occur?' Because the Canadian program had been taken over by its clientele, I said, who insisted that the family class be expanded."

[Breakthrough in Canada! by Kevin Michael Grace;, November 26th 2002.]

Canada is now on the same dismal demographic trajectory as the U.S.A.

The cruise ferry.     Discovery of the month, small but worth noting: the ferry/cruise from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Portland, Maine.

The ferry goes both ways. Yarmouth to Portland is a daytime trip, 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Portland to Yarmouth is overnight. Because the trip is so long, the ferry operators advertise it as a "cruise ferry". You can book a cabin; and, if you don't want to leave your dog in the car below decks, a kennel. We booked both, to Toby's disgust — he still hasn't forgiven us.

We got a cabin with a porthole on the sunlit side of the ship. After two thousand miles of driving, this was a very relaxing nine hours. There are shipboard activities if you want them, which we mostly didn't: movies, a wine-tasting, a casino, and so on.

I'm not sure how sound the "cruise ferry" business model is. Prices are reasonable, but in early October there were only enough vehicles to fill one car deck. This is quite a new venture; the previous ferry went out of business. I'd say book while you can.

Still stands the forest primeval.     The only person known to me as a famous Nova Scotian was the fictional Evangeline, heroine of Longfellow's 1847 narrative poem with that name. Evangeline was one of the French-speaking "Acadians," great numbers of whom were deported by the British and New Englanders to Britain's North American colonies during the continual wars between Britain and France through the mid-18th century.

I knew about Longfellow's poem but had never actually read it through. It's 1,400 lines; too long for the Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, which draws the line [sic] at "The Rape of the Lock" (800 lines). Traveling in Nova Scotia, I resolved to sit down and read the whole thing when I got home. I have now done so.

Not bad, if you are one of the tiny and dwindling minority who like narrative verse. It's a period piece, of course, the sentimentality at odds with the ironical sensibilities of today (I bet Charles Dickens admired it). The meter Longfellow chose — dactylic hexameter — is also, in my opinion, at odds with the natural cadences of spoken English.

Longfellow was a master poet, though, and quite long stretches of "Evangeline" are very beautiful. Here are the last ten lines. We are back in Nova Scotia after much wandering:

Still stands the forest primeval; but under the shade of its branches

Dwells another race, with other customs and language.

Only along the shore of the mournful and misty Atlantic

Linger a few Acadian peasants, whose fathers from exile

Wandered back to their native land to die in its bosom.

In the fisherman's cot the wheel and the loom are still busy;

Maidens still wear their Norman caps and their kirtles of homespun,

And by the evening fire repeat Evangeline's story,

While from its rocky caverns the deep-voiced, neighboring ocean

Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

Middlebrow fiction of the month.     From verse to prose …

For a long car journey like this one — 2,250 miles on the odometer — you need some listening material. I packed some lectures from the Great Courses company and left Mrs D to choose something she'd want to listen to.

signatureShe chose an audio version of Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things.

I didn't recognize the author's name until my wife reminded me. Gilbert wrote the 2007 bestseller memoir Eat, Pray, Love, which I dimly remember Rosie enthusing about to me at the time. I had deduced from her enthusing that Eat, Pray, Love was womanish woo, the kind of thing in which I have zero interest. I had accordingly listened politely to the enthusing, then utterly forgotten about Ms Gilbert and all her works. Rosie is literarily sophisticated and well-read in two languages; but husband and wife can't always have the same tastes, and shouldn't expect to.

Well, I still haven't opened Eat, Pray, Love and probably never shall, but The Signature of All Things is really good middlebrow fiction.

I am a big fan of middlebrow fiction, and have even had a go at it myself. Somerset Maugham, the quintessential middlebrow fiction writer, has been a favorite of mine since my late teens.

I'm not sure I'd put Gilbert up there with Maugham, but she's pretty darn good. If the heroine of The Signature of All Things is a self-impersonation — middlebrow heroes and heroines usually are — Gilbert is also an empiricist after my own heart.

That heroine is a botanist, born in 1800. In old age she becomes acquainted with Charles Darwin's famous correspondent Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was a first-rate biologist — he had come up with a theory of evolution by natural selection independently of Darwin — but in later life he developed a weakness for mid-19th-century styles of woo: hypnotism, spiritualism, and so on. Here, at the very end of the book, our heroine is in conversation with him.

"Surely you are asking yourself by now —why does this miserably unlucky woman call herself fortunate?"

He said nothing. He was too kind to reply to such a question.

"Do not worry, Mr. Wallace. I am not being facetious with you. I do truly believe I am fortunate. I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world. As such, I have never felt insignificant. This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so — for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities."

When he still did not reply, Alma went on:

"You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others — why they must dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion … but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose. All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history — added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life."

Now it was he who patted her hand.

"Very well put, Miss Whittaker," he said.

"Indeed, Mr. Wallace," she said.

You don't find many declarations of the true scientific spirit as plain as that; not in fiction, at any rate. As an intellectual attitude, it doesn't leave any room for woo.

Movie of the month.     Having named a Poem of the Month and a Novel of the Month, I may as well complete the set with a movie: Locke.

This is a very low-budget movie. I don't see how the budget could be any lower. In fact, if x measures viewing satisfaction and y is the production cost in current dollars, this movie may hold an all-time world record for the ratio x / y. There is only one actor on-screen and only one set — the interior of a car.

The thing isn't perfect. I could have done without the cod-Freudian folderol about Ivan's father; but perhaps the scriptwriter felt he needed to bolster the plot with some psychological justification for Ivan doing the rather improbable thing he's doing.

It worked somehow, though, and kept a firm grip on my attention for an hour and a half.

Math Corner.     The greatest math popularizer of the past fifty years was Martin Gardner, who died in 2010, and with whom I had some slight personal dealings.

In 1960 Gardner published The Annotated Alice: the complete texts of both of Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books, with Gardner's notes and the original illustrations by John Tenniel. It's a lovely book, a great favorite of my daughter's.

Annotated AliceWell, November this year sees the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first "Alice" book. To mark the occasion, the Lewis Carroll Society of North America has sponsored the publication of The Annotated Alice: 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition — basically Gardner's book, augmented by a further 55 years of scholarly research and commentary (much of it Gardner's) and many additional illustrations by later artists.

Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and a logician. There is much more logic than math in the Alice books, but Gardner diligently ferrets out the little math there is. He adds tangential remarks of his own, too: this one, for example, on the Cheshire Cat disappearing but leaving his grin behind.

The phrase "grin without a cat" is not a bad description of pure mathematics. Although mathematical theorems often can be usefully applied to the structure of the external world, the theorems themselves are abstractions that belong in another realm "remote from human passions," as Bertrand Russell once put it in a memorable passage, "remote even from the pitiful facts of nature … an ordered cosmos, where pure thought can dwell as in its natural home, and where one, at least, of our nobler impulses can escape from the dreary exile of the actual world."
I strongly recommend this as a Christmas purchase for "Alice" fans, Gardner fans, lovers of great literature (which the "Alice" books are), and those with an interest in late-Victorian social life or the history of childhood.

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 FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and From the Dissident Right II: Essays 2013. 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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