Wish I’d said that – February 26, 2017

“The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity. The choice would not be hard to make. But there is no choice, and that is where the bitterness comes in. The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. ‘Everything is permitted’ does not mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions.”

Albert Camus “The Absurd Man” in The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays



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Aye, and Cheap Too – It Happened Today, February 20, 2017

What could be more quintessentially Scottish than the Shetland and Orkney Islands? Bleak, remote, picturesque, the ideal location for a hardy folk and their hardy ponies. By reputation the Scots won’t go rock climbing unless they have “full conditions” namely rain and wind that deter even other people crazy enough to rock climb. Och aye mon.

It is therefore a bit surprising to learn that both these island chains, which to my shame I hadn’t realized were northeast of John o’ Groats in the ancestral county of Caithness to which I have not been, itself allegedly more than a little remote, belonged to Norway until the 15th century.

Of course a lot of things “belonged” to Norway in the sense of having been seized by ferocious Vikings over the previous millennium or so. (And parenthetically I often wonder how those who feel that within North America we should do a kind of ethnic reset of landholdings to 1500 think we should undo the impact of those raids, invasions and random chaos.) But these two island chains, it turns out, wound up in Scottish hands via a pawn shop.

Perhaps you don’t fancy your chances of wandering into such an establishment with “Mainland” and its cousins (yes, “Mainland” is the largest of the Shetlands) under your coat and hoping the man at the desk will advance some money without a lot of questions about provenance. But it actually is what happened on February 20 of 1469 when Christian I of Norway put them up as security because he was having trouble scraping together a dowry for his daughter Margaret to marry James III of Scotland in what I suppose was regarded on both sides as a shrewd dynastic move.

It wasn’t. James III’s grandiose European schemes were of no benefit to Norway or his own people who he didn’t bother trying to govern well. And like so many of the Stuarts’ cunning plans James III’s ended badly, with his death in battle against rebellious nobles in 1488. (His son James IV was killed in the disastrous defeat by the English at Flodden. His son James V died shortly after the disastrous defeat by the English at Solway Moss. But I digress.)

The point is that Christian I pawned the islands and never redeemed them, Norway apparently becoming less interested in these picturesque rocks after unifying with Denmark which was bigger, warmer and less inaccessible. In 1472 they were officially annexed to the Scottish crown.

So what could be more quintessentially Scottish than the Shetland and Orkney Islands? I’ll tell you. Getting them in a pawn shop for a bargain price.


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Wish I’d said that – February 16, 2017

“Unless we can make daybreak and daily bread and the creative secrets of labour interesting in themselves, there will fall on all our civilisation a fatigue which is the one disease from which civilisations do not recover.”

G. K. Chesterton in The Listener Jan. 21 1934, quoted in Gilbert Magazine Vol. 10 #6 (April-May 2007)


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Wish I’d said that – February 15, 2017

“To corrupt family relations is to poison fountains; for the sources of the Commonwealth are within the households, and errors there are irretrievable.”

Edmund Burke, quoted by Andrea Mrozek in Cardus Comment Summer 2016


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When Polk met lens – It Happened Today, February 14, 2017

Ah, the wonders of the steam age. Including that on February 14 back in 1849, James Knox Polk became the first sitting president of the United States to have his photograph taken.

If you’re wondering why he was in office on that date, it’s because prior to the New Deal with its air of constant crisis there was a four-month period between an election and the swearing in of the new president.

Oh, you didn’t mean it that way? You were wondering why somebody called James Polk was ever President? And in his defence I should note first that Polk was elected in 1844 in something of an upset, both as Democratic nominee and then as president, on the pledge to serve only a single term. So he did not run in 1848. (He then enjoyed the shortest retirement of any president, dying of cholera on June 15, 1849.)

Can I say anything else nice about him? Well, he was also elected in part on his pledge to annex Texas which he did, and the United States has generally been better for it. And historians generally credit him with having been a very successful president for having managed to garner support for and pass virtually everything on his agenda. On the other hand, like every other president between roughly John Tyler and James Buchanan, he stands indicted of having failed to halt the drift into bloody civil war.

As for his photo, it’s a somewhat grim affair. But in addition to the expectation that statesmen would look vaguely statesmanlike back then, there was the need to sit very still while primitive film gradually absorbed your image.

It’s a long way from the modern selfie. But in some sense the journey began with Polk.

As I said, the wonders of the steam age.


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Your Lovely Spire is Toppling – It Happened Today, February 13, 2017

To me, gothic architecture is proof that modernity is too smug by half. Nothing we have built is remotely as beautiful as this pinnacle of medieval artistry and engineering, and very little even tries. Which is especially amazing given the advanced materials and techniques we possess that means very little of our construction falls down through overly ambitious design. Unlike, say, the spire of Ely Cathedral which bit the mud on February 13, 1322.

Many years ago I read a splendid engineering book for the lay person called Structures, or, Why Things Don’t Fall Down. And I can honestly say I have never looked at the world the same way since. I have been evaluating everything from bridges to docks to sausages and blades of grass differently since reading James Edward Gordon’s 1978 classic. And it helped me appreciate how in the high Middle Ages clerics, builders and designers overcame the natural tendency of stone to sit in sturdy piles including in the early medieval Romanesque style, and sent it soaring into the heavens through innovations critically including the flying buttress.

Mind you, I have also never forgotten his statement that as builders became more and more ambitious, the question with the cathedrals was increasingly not whether the nave collapsed but when. There are things you just can’t do with stone. Including our Peace Tower, incidentally. Much as I like it, there’s an element of deceit there because it relies on steel to assume a shape stone cannot take or, more precisely, cannot retain.

Back to Ely Cathedral, a Saxon abbey from 672 AD subject to such unwelcome attention of various Vikings that it had to be refounded in 970, and was then gradually demolished and rebuilt by the Normans. (Oh, and can I mention that Abbot Simeon, put in charge of the major Norman project, was 89 when he took the abbot’s job and 90 years old when the work began? Not everybody died young and squalid in those days.) Meanwhile the church just kept getting more and more magnificent as the years went by, beginning Romanesque and ending Gothic, and eventually they overreached. But the result can teach us a lot.

The original plan was for a “cruciform” tower like that at Winchester. But a lot of things can happen in a couple of centuries especially if you’re building a vast stone cathedral in damp wet fenlands. Like the ground settling ominously as you go. And then your crucial cruciform tower tumbling down in ruins. Which it did beginning late on February 12.

After various observations not all of which may have conformed to the ideal of monastic life, those in charge decided rather than putting it up again and warning people not to linger in it they would instead create a unique octagonal tower that is not just broader and stronger but also a spectacular achievement that still draws visitors seven centuries later.

So yes, the Middle Ages had spectacular artistic vision and a bold willingness to experiment, to dare, and to adapt in response to failure with yet more brilliant innovation. I do not think anything we build today will even be around in 700 years, let alone be worth looking at if it is.

Let us not jeer lightly at this magnificent civilization and its sublime buildings from our office cubicles, brutalist concrete highrises and plastic suburbs.


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