There’s a point to this, but wait for it. Meanwhile, it’s all true and includes a morbidly obese ninja.
Newspapers were agog over a Welsh matron staggering home across the village green after a long night in the pub, when she was bitten by a ten-foot python. She thought she’d been stung by nettles until she got home, switched on the lights, saw the copious bleeding and rang the emergency services; the clever medics somehow noticed the gigantic fang marks in both legs, and a tame zookeeper estimated the size of the snake.
Being so drunk is commonplace there, but usually the tipplers only hallucinate about snakes rather than actually get bitten. Welsh herpetologists report that the python is now back home giving its owner an affectionate squeeze. The Irish Tourism Board declared Wales dangerously snake-infested, reminding us that Saint Patrick drove Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Subphylum Vertebrata, Class Reptilia, Order Squamata, Suborder Serpentes from the visitor-friendly Emerald Isle.
After perusing the newspaper’s daily snake-attack section, I had my problem with the ninja.
It began with a young friend putting his private parts at risk for charity. Renfrew, as interesting as any well-travelled, 32-year-old, ex-Cambridge, Armenian-Iraqi-Brit can be, emailed me asking friends and family to sponsor his two rounds over a dangerous-sounding obstacle course. It was called something like Nuts-Destructo, intentionally ambiguous on whether one needed to be mentally unbalanced to try it, or if it might damage a fellow’s wedding-tackle, or both.
He planned this in support of a charity kennel in Kabul, that helped his animal-loving wife and him rescue two emotionally unstable Afghan street dogs and ship them to England’s lush Home Counties, where the confused beasts alternately cower and rip the flesh off innocent passersby. By risking his chances of fatherhood, Renfrew could conceivably raise enough money to help the charity fill England’s leafy byways with more ante-feral Third World canines–a winner all around, apart from the collateral victims.
Renfrew and Jocelyn had backed their rusty Land Cruiser over the first feral puppy, smashing its rear undercarriage (the dog’s, not the Land Cruiser’s). Nursing it back to (physical, not mental) health built bonds of affection and assuaged guilt. I’d helped them to care for it, and I frankly relished the energetic way in which the little beast sank her tiny fangs into the odious development consultants who shared our Kabul boarding house a few years back. We got on well: the pup and I had something in common (although I never bite foreign-development consultants, knowing the loathsome diseases they carry). I even came not to mind her intermittent sprinkling on my rare Anatolian Highland kilim, since a modicum of animal urine adds authenticity to any tribal rug and the pup had only a tiny internal reservoir. The other feral puppy, equally psycho, was meant to provide the first with emotional stability. Growing up together they acquired the poise of Bonny and Clyde, the virtue of the Manson Family, and the peaceful nature of the Taliban. Still, the dogs regard me as a co-conspirator and I like them.
I logged onto the for-profit website that arranges self-destructive activities for volunteers risking their intimate body-parts on behalf of non-profit charities; it is a complex sector nowadays. I did it reluctantly: even gently pressuring friends and relatives into donating to your charities, when they may have other favoured charities of their own, or even be short of cash that month, was in my youth not a ‘done thing.’ Yet Renfrew is a sterling chap, a friend who is brave and bright and madcap in equal parts. And such hitherto unconventional fund-raising seems to be the fashion nowadays. And it is for a good cause, if it fills English villages with packs of wild, slavering Afghan street dogs chasing away packs of wild, slavering underclass teenagers prowling for old-age pensioners to mug so they can pay their drug-pushers. It generates symbiosis; the pensioners feed them little treats and the dogs, unlike the teenagers, are capable of common gratitude.
So I made a small but uncharacteristically generous donation. After hitting the “send” button, it revealed just how little everyone else had pledged (not even pledged, since it debited my credit card immediately, long before Renfrew decided to turn up at Cods-Off or, more sensibly, abscond). His wife Jocelyn, for goodness’ sake, only ponied up a mere twenty quid (thirty bucks); and she has a lot more at stake than I do if her husband abandons his privates on the penultimate hurdle. Heigh-ho, as Bertie Wooster used to sigh, even though his pal, ‘Catsmeat’ Potter-Pirbright, never tried to cadge a fiver and repay it with his own castration.
I thought no more about it, apart from pangs of mild guilt for not following up on last weekend’s Festival of Masochism and learning whether some local wino found a free second set of male reproductive organs on a local running track. I’ll ring Renfrew, and if he answers in the register of a coloratura soprano I’ll have my answer.
Besides, I was distracted by the fat wannabe ninja.
A week had not passed when I received another batch-email, this time from one of Renfrew’s colleagues. I’ve known her for nearly twenty years; a profoundly energetic and likeable woman as big around as she is tall. No doubt inspired by Renfrew and his flirtation with CSGE (Charitable Self-enacted Gender Eradication, enshrined in the European Union Human Rights Act along with buggery and voluntary cannibalism), she proposes to abseil down the front of their 14-story office building on the River Thames. Really.
Consider an otherwise intelligent 50-year-old woman, presumably wearing a skin-tight XXXL ninja suit bound with all manner of ropes and crampons like Reinhold Messner rescaling Everest without oxygen again, after the brain damage. She expects friends to donate money to some charity in order for her to rappel 150 feet or more, down the front of a high-rise, when her exercise regimen seems limited to childbirth years ago and, more recently, to bench-pressing chocolate éclairs frequently and in bulk. As the dental office waiting-room kiddie magazines used to ask: “what’s wrong with this picture?”
My first reaction was horror. I had hoped that she would die aged 94 or so, drifting away during a nap in her flower garden after a cup of chamomile tea, not as a massive red splodge on The Albert Embankment that was half an inch deep and much greater in diameter. My second reaction was more horror, of what tenants on lower floors might think was the world’s largest suicidal window-cleaner plummeting to a gooey death. Then I was also horrified at the thought of luckless splattered passersby, and disturbing emergency telephone calls to the already overstressed local constabulary and the Parliamentary security squads nearby: so far, London’s Islamist suicide terrorists have avoided dropping large people from tall buildings. Think if it caught on.
Then, still horrified, I wondered who’s next. At least fifty more people work in their company, and they may continue to inspire one another. What if they all have favourite charities and they all start bounding off cliffs, crashing their cars intentionally, swimming the English Channel after downing eighteen pints, juggling chainsaws, or skewering their tongues like Hindu sadhus? Even worse is what if they want me to help pay for it?
I girded my loins and deleted the email. Instead, I may send her a bottle of champagne. Unless her children and widower guzzle it at the wake, she can enjoy it after she wafts down to earth and presumably regains the use of her senses.
What to make of all this? Before reading the cultural tea-leaves, I field-tested this factual report on my usual global focus-group of fellow reactionaries.
In Jordan, the aristocratic Dutch doctor-lawyer plus Orientalist-cum-adventurer, given to playing Mozart violin solos in Middle Eastern war zones, often writes emails using a befuddling mix of seven languages but this time he stuck to English. He hated the fund-raising danger. Whether in domestic charities or the far-abroad, exotic lethal risk was now the province of the Great Unwashed, he lamented, and real adventurers were stripped of stylish exclusivity. The real adventurer has a point: imagine Wilfred Thesiger struggling into the Saudi ‘Empty Quarter,’ only to find it crammed with giggling English schoolgirls on Spring Break. Good thing Wilfred is dead, poor chap.
At home in Kent, an Emmy-winner, critic, biographer and UK legendary wit hated the kennel and the hoopla. He cited the typically humourless middle-class Brit donning a red clown-nose for needless trendy charities, convincing equally dour neighbours that he was merry but only once a year. (Besides, wearing a red nose on charity-day, called Comic Relief, lets one shake down other people rather than donate one’s own cash. In English terms, it means that you spend a few hours looking only slightly more buffoonish than usual, but save yourself the average donation of almost a dime). Echoing the Dutchman, my writer-friend fumed that easy access queered the pitch for professionals, in this case humorists. Furthermore, it opens the door to England’s ubiquitous and smugly Progressive Charity Nazis and the Stormtroopers of Political Correctness, and ultimately how modernity is dead-boring and tomatoes don’t taste as good as when we were young. Can’t fault him there.
Across the pond, the high-powered, East Coast, arch-conservative, labour lawyer dropped his incense-sticks and stopped tending his shrine to America’s Founding Fathers, long enough to grumble that Western Civilization was, so to speak, up the fecal waterway and there was simply nothing to be done except pray that the end is swift and relatively painless. He, too, is probably right, but excused from any career in comedy.
Only my brother thought it was funny, God bless him; but the student of Dr. Russell Kirk teaches morals and ethics to Florida Catholic middle-schoolers, and hence takes a sensible multi-millennial view of decline and renewal. And a merrily tolerant position on minor human frailties.
What struck me, beyond all the fun of Welsh pythons, insane street-dogs, voluntary auto-castration, and elephantine women flinging themselves off of tall buildings for worthy causes, is the sneakily incremental nature of decadence.
Mock if you will the Classical Roman big-shots gorging on larks’ tongues and Ancient Egyptian queens bathing in asses’ milk, but aren’t pet pythons a little extravagant too? Haven’t the Welsh heard of housecats and goldfish? Next, when did we start needing to risk life and limb just to ask pals to support a charity? From so-called “extreme sports” to “adventure holidays,” how did our rich, even Lucullan, lives become so boring that we need potentially lethal diversions? Or that these hare-brained activities inspire admiration in others? Am I alone in saluting someone who unplugs the telly, switches off her smart-phone, mixes a flagon of cocktails and retreats into the garden for a week of Mommsen’s Rome interspersed with Wodehouse? Would I admire her more if she added piranhas to her footbath?
Moreover, isn’t it interesting that so few of us see this extremism as a form of social decadence? Our grandparents would have, and around the world outside of the West, most people do today. They have big families, and bigger communities, full of people with real problems that need solving; they lack the time, money, and brain-damaged inclination to (a) keep pet pythons; (b) rescue far-off feral mutts; (c) risk sacrificing Dad’s genitalia; or (d) entice Fat Aunt Fatima to fling herself off the nearest high-rise. They’d rather treat Uncle Juan’s glaucoma, help young Third-Cousin Wang apply to engineering-school, grow vegetables, or cook a nice family dinner for that week’s religious holiday. Imagine Third World people wasting their lives in such dull pursuits!
For us it’s been a while coming. Heading to one of Dr. Kirk’s Hillsdale College lectures almost 40 years ago, I paused in the honours-dorm common-room only long enough to note that the television had been left on, to a broadcast of wrestling dwarves. How Roman, I thought.
That’s all. I offer no remedy today. Besides, lunch is dormouse poached in Cypriot wine. Then, while my toga is being pressed, one of my slaves will give me a massage in warmed hazelnut oil. One can hardly get through the day without these harmless little indulgences.
Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.