P. K. van der Byl: African Statesman

Hannes Wessels

PK van der Byl, African Statesman

Johannesburg: 30º South Publishers, 2010


Margot Metroland

If you need a useful and practical hero in the field of race politics and statecraft, you might take a good look at a colorful and headstrong eccentric named Pieter Kenyon Fleming-Voltelyn van der Byl (1923-1999).

When it comes to the story of independent Rhodesia, most people only remember Prime Minister Ian Douglas Smith. But statesman-soldier PK (as he was always known) was the truly steadfast and remarkable figure in that saga. Without him, Rhodesia might well  have folded its tent in four years, instead of surviving for a battered and beleaguered fourteen. Had there been a hundred PK’s, Rhodesia might well have gone on forever.

Born into one of the oldest Cape Dutch families in South Africa, PK served in the Second World War (British Army, 7th Hussars, in Italy and Austria) and then read law at Pembroke College, Cambridge. After which he became, of all things, a tobacco planter in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia. Gradually he entered politics, becoming active in the new pro-white-rule Rhodesian Front party. In 1965 Harold Wilson’s Labour government announced their intent to turn Rhodesia into yet another disastrous black-run satrapy, and never mind the recent examples of Gold Coast (Ghana), the Belgian Congo, Kenya, and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). PK was second to none in his insistence that Rhodesia cut its ties to Britain and go its own way.

But first, in September, Ian Smith went to London to plead with Harold Wilson. Wilson and the government were intransigent. Wilson threatened military force, and 40 Labour MPs were calling for immediate invasion. Nor were many Tory MPs sympathetic. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury got in on the act, demanding that the RAF bomb Salisbury, Rhodesia’s capital.

And that’s how we got to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, or UDI, signed in Salisbury, Rhodesia by Prime Minister Ian Smith and his government on November 11, 1965, PK van der Byl’s 42nd birthday.

For the next 14 years PK remained the most passionate hard-liner in the government. Intimating that Smith was irresolute and maybe too willing to compromise, PK let it be known that he’d eagerly take over if he ever detected “the least whiff of surrender.” Beginning as a lowly deputy minister of information, PK soon became full minister, later was given the ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs. Throughout his tenure he was determined to control the national narrative, imposing firm censorship of anti-UDI newspapers and journalists, and even deported visiting British journalists for negative coverage. Young Max Hastings came to Salisbury to write sneeringly in the Evening Standard that Smith and PK “would have seemed ludicrous figures, had they not possessed the power of life and death over millions of people.” Max got the boot.[1] So did other writers, academics and politicians who came to Rhodesia on a hate mission.

PK loved to visit the forces in the bush (SAS, Rhodesian Light Infantry, Rhodesian African Rifles) and share in their terrorist-hunting. He dressed for the occasion and was a sight to see. A group captain recalls PK’s arrival one day in the Zambezi region (NW Rhodesia):

[H]is arrival…for his helicopter flight to the site was quite an eye-opener because his dress was so appalling. Below his Australian bush hat he wore a pink shirt with bright blue tie, khaki shorts with black belt, short blue socks and ‘vellies’ (veldskoene, lit. bush shoes). His strange dress in the bush was often discussed. I honestly think he did this from time to time for the shock effect. He knew the Zambezi Valley like the back of his hand, having walked it extensively on his hunting expeditions.

When the RLI and SAS got to know him better, PK became very popular with the soldiers. His ridiculous accent appealed to them just as much as his strange dress.He often requested to be taken on patrol so he could “shoot a terrorist” but asked that care be taken not to get him “lawst.”  (pp. 143-144)

Here is some real insight into the PK mystique. Tall and striking to begin with, he cultivated further attention (or authority) through sartorial elegance or oddness. And his drawling accent was from another era entirely, something one might associate with an elderly palace courtier, who pronounces “house” as hice and “girl” as (hard g) gel. An affectation, many people assumed. At Cambridge in the ’40s they called him the Piccadilly Dutchman.[2]

PK out in the bush.

Speaking of which, South African Prime Minister John Vorster couldn’t stand him (“that dreadful man”), and told Ian Smith never to bring PK along when Smith and Vorster met at rugby matches for quasi-unofficial strategy discussions. To Vorster, PK was a traitor to his people, a old-stock Boer who affected a phony British accent and “imperial mannerisms.”

Old Cape Dutch he certainly was, at least on his father’s side, but he was scarcely a Boer. The van der Byls had been Anglicized since the mid-1800s, and sided with the Crown during the Boer Wars. PK’s father “Major Piet,” another soldier-statesman, had been a minister in General Smuts’s cabinet in Pretoria during the 1940s. Moreover, PK’s mother was Scottish, daughter of an Army physician and Lieutenant Colonel. With this sort of pedigree, you can easily see PK shaping up into a cross between Harry Flashman and something out of P. G. Wodehouse’s Drones Club. (PK’s London club was in fact White’s.)

Further to PK’s character, a succinct description is found at the start of PK van der Byl, African Statesman, in the Foreword by longtime friend Lieutenant-Colonel Ron Reid-Daly:

My early impression of PK was…most unfavourable, because at first sight he appeared to have all the characteristics of a chinless Pom. I remember wondering how Ian Smith, a down-to-earth Rhodesian, had seen fit to accept him into his party. ***[B]ut I was soon highly impressed by him. Unlike many of the more pedestrian types in the military and political hierarchy, PK was focused and absolutely determined to do whatever it took to win the war… Vilified in the international press as an unrepentant racist, he was totally committed to the welfare of his black troops.***

In the light of history there is little doubt in my mind that South African Prime Minister John Vorster, in his misguided effort to win favours from African leaders, scuppered Rhodesia’s chance of survival, hastened the collapse of white rule in Africa and altered the course of continental history when he forced Ian Smith to dismiss PK van der Byl as Minister of Defence.  (pp. 6-7)

“Get rid of van der Byl or I’m turning off the tap,” Vorster said in a 1976 phone call to Smith, according to PK. PK remained in the cabinet as foreign minister, but that was hardly more than a title, inasmuch as Rhodesia was an international pariah, maintaining diplomatic relations only with South Africa…which didn’t want to talk to Foreign Minister van der Byl!

In the mid-70s, Marxist hegemony in Africa moved at a galloping pace. A Leftist military coup in Lisbon meant that once-friendly Portugal now broke relations with Rhodesia, and condoned the Soviet-backed black nationalists in Mozambique (on Rhodesia’s east and north) and in Angola. Rhodesia was now nearly encircled by hostile governments—except for South Africa, where John Vorster was playing a “please eat me last” game, hoping to buy time by gradually sacrificing Rhodesia.

There were other, subtler international factors that disadvantaged Rhodesia as the 1970s progressed. Though frozen out of official diplomatic intercourse, the country had maintained useful contacts with senior intelligence in France during the De Gaulle years (enabling exports of Rhodesian agricultural products), but these became less useful with changes of government. Ian Smith nurtured some warm, promising relations with British ministers early in the Heath years (notably Foreign Secretary and former Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home). Instead of “black rule” or “majority rule,” Whitehall in 1971 agreed to pursue the idea of “responsible rule,” and a friendly British-Rhodesian agreement seemed to be in the offing.

It emerged Heath sunk the Rhodesia settlement in exchange for Liberal support for UK entry into the European Common Market. Liberal leader Jeremy ‘Bomber’ Thorpe had long sought Rhodesia’s fall and Heath traded this irresistible scrap. Thorpe considered white Rhodesians homophobic and an embarrassing relic of a shameful imperial past. (p. 160) [3]

Rhodesia ceased to be in 1979, with the so-called Lancaster House Agreement in London. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher didn’t want to drag this tiresome Rhodesia legacy any further into her premiership, and so she forced an agreement to accept a new “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” government under the black Bishop Muzorewa.

But even that effort was a failure, as the Muzorewa regime was regarded by most governments (including Jimmy Carter’s in America) as merely a puppet of Ian Smith and company. The following year Robert Mugabe took power.

For the next few years, PK sat in the Zimbabwe parliament. There were ten reserved “white” seats in the early years, per agreement. Otherwise he and his new wife Princess Charlotte, granddaughter of the last Habsburg Emperor Karl I, retreated to the elegant van der Byl family estate in the Western Cape (South Africa). They had three sons.

Wedding in Austria, August 1979.

I first bought this book ten years ago. But in coming back to it now, I realize I mainly just delved into the “hot parts,” i.e., the UDI, the collapse of Rhodesia in the latter 1970s, and the extensive photo section. This time around, I was impressed by the densely detailed history of southern Africa from the 1600s to 1800s, and by the geopolitical background to the UDI. Ian Smith and PK and their colleagues in the Rhodesian Front clearly perceived the Communist effort to wreck stable governments in Africa in the early 1960s, using the pretexts of anti-colonialism and black rule.

My paperbound copy of the book cost me about $20. You can now buy the same edition for about $199. But not to worry. There is finally a Kindle version for only $6.99.



[1] Though according to author Wessels, Max Hastings visited numerous times, “masquerading as a Rhodesiaphile hunter-fisherman, [and] repaid endless hospitality with vitriolic scorn”:

Like most of my colleagues I reported from Rhodesia in an almost permanent state of rage. We saw a smug, ruthless white minority, beer guts contained with difficulty inside blazers with RAF crests, proclaiming themselves the guardians of civilization in the heart of Africa. (p. 127)

[2] On a bawdier angle, P.K. was called “Tripod” by his fellow tobacco farmers, for his rumored sexual prowess.

[3] While author Wessels may be guessing right, it’s more likely Mr. Thorpe was just being bien-pensant. “Homophobic” is an anachronism here as it did not enter popular parlance until about 1990.


Why We Can’t Have Nice White Lady Things

Jessie Daniels

Nice White Ladies:
The Truth About White Supremacy, Our Role in It,
And How We Can Help Dismantle It

(New York: Seal Press), 2021

Margot Metroland

Having cash flow problems? Trouble making ends meet? Perhaps you should try selling your children into prostitution. It’s easy, it’s profitable, and many Progressive people are doing it! As an added bonus, you will be helping to dismantle “White Supremacy.”

While that particular example is not literally promoted in this book, the foregoing does describe the author’s general thesis. You know immediately from the subtitle—that old Commie nonsense phrase White Supremacy!—that Jessie Daniels is going to preach a Left-extremist ideology. Any symbol of traditional society and morality is fair game to her. Normal families, white weddings, stable marriages, conventional sexuality, rules of etiquette . . . these are all invidious props of “white supremacy” to Daniels. Thus we need to destroy them and take apart the whole social structure; we must promote more, better, bigger degeneracies.

If Daniels doesn’t specifically recommend selling her children to the whoremongers, that’s probably because she doesn’t have any. But she’s found an equally profitable scam by becoming a sort of academic, in which role she promotes national immolation and race suicide. According to her bio at Amazon, she teaches sociology, something called “critical social psychology,” and “Africana studies.”

When the book came last year, few knew what to make of it, other than to see it as creative nonfiction in the same basic genre as J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: one part vague autobiography, three parts convoluted and ahistorical sociology. Kirkus Reviews, one of the few mainstream publications to give it notice, simply paraphrased the promo copy, calling the book “An immensely readable examination of White women’s prominent role in the endurance of systematic [sic] racism… [The author] discusses the tragic suicide of her mother, who, despite relative privilege, was ‘taught to be nice above all else’.”

More helpfully, Daniels herself describes Nice White Ladies as a look at the “‘Karen’ phenomenon,” that is to say: those bossy, self-righteous white women who like to “demand to see the manager,” and will readily call the cops on misbehaving black people. Karens will complain about non-blacks, too, but the newsworthy instances in recent years have mainly been Karens calling out black men.

Two examples here will suffice. Back in 2018 there was a Starbucks manager in Center City Philadelphia, and she phoned the police to have two non-customer black men arrested for loitering and refusing to leave. There was hue and cry over this, mainly from the BLM community.  Within a couple of days the hapless woman was fired—by the Starbucks CEO himself.

Then there was New York’s “Central Park Karen.” Early one morning—May 25, 2020—she was walking her newly adopted dog in the Park’s wooded, hilly “Ramble.” She encountered a large black man who threatened to poison her dog, ostensibly because the dog wasn’t leashed. (The Ramble, a legendary gay cruising ground, is not a leash-free area.) Out of fear the lady then called 911, while her opponent approached menacingly and started to phone-video her. This video immediately went viral. The black guy described himself as a “gay birdwatcher,” a Harvard graduate and comic-book writer. He liked to carry poisoned doggie treats for just such encounters. Perfectly normal fellow. Soon afterwards, “Central Park Karen” was summarily sacked from her job as portfolio manager for an investment firm. (I mentioned the date up top because it was also George Floyd Day, and this ridiculous incident contributed in its own little way to the rioting and burning that immediately commenced.)

Now, the clear moral to these “Karen” stories is that if you’re a woman and you call out a misbehaving Person of Color—most particularly a male black that is acting in a threatening manner—you might very well lose your job. To author Jessie Daniels, this outcome is right and just: these white women were exercising their White Privilege and White Supremistry by refusing to be victimized. Nonetheless I find it really perverse that Daniels feels no sympathy, let alone solidarity, with these women. Perhaps there was a practical consideration here. She figured she had a better chance of publishing a rambling, disjointed manuscript if she focused on blaming women who try to do the right thing and report crimes. A very edgy viewpoint indeed, particularly coming from a self-described lesbian feminist separatist.

Daniels pulls a different sort of blame game when talking about a young woman named Emily. (Daniels does not give her last name, perhaps for legal reasons, so I won’t either.) Emily is a young cartoonist and animator who attained some notoriety in late 2016 when she lost her part-time job selling peanuts and pistachios in a sports stadium. She had just attended the National Policy Institute conference in November, and got caught on video making fun of the Antifa people who were rioting outside the Ronald Reagan Building. Daniels says she became “a convert to white supremacy” as a result of growing up in mixed-race public schools and being forced to read To Kill a Mockingbird.

For Emily, getting involved in the white-supremacist movement was a kind of escape hatch out of the dead-end feelings she associated with being white. This seems to be one way to respond to circumstances, when you have been raised white by people you love, only to realize that your whiteness is part of a system that destroys peoples’ [sic] lives.

A very odd take, given that Daniels has been mainly telling us about white women whose lives were destroyed, or at least significantly damaged. But actually, in describing Emily, she’s alluding to herself. Daniels’ personal narrative is all about how she grew up under the spell of whiteness and white supreemism, and how she’s struggled all her life to throw it off.

The actual facts are unclear; what we get instead are the lines she’s been telling herself for 40 years or more. Jessie Daniels is what in fiction we call an “unreliable narrator.” Supposedly until she grew up she did not know she was a white person. Seriously! And her mother cried when Jessie was born because mother didn’t really want a blond, Caucasian child. No, she expected a little papoose! You see, Jessie’s father liked to tell people that he had some Cherokee Indian blood way back there. It was a great disappointment to Jessie when she grew up and found out that this wasn’t the case.

She returns to these stories, again and again, amplifying them with other details. She says her father’s father (who we have now established was not Cherokee) was a child molester (no specifics for that saga). He’d also been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Adding insult to injury, Daniels’ father tells her when she’s about 21 that he’s real sorry Granddaddy interfered with her; but really, the business about being in the Klan was no big deal, especially in those days. When Daniels got to grad school, she decided she was so piqued at Granddaddy that she didn’t want to carry his surname around anymore. That name was Harper, but now she changed it to Daniels in honor of an anti-lynching suffragette from Texas. She loved telling her black friends about this: how Granddaddy was in the Klan and that’s why she’d had to change her name; though she’d leave out her little story about how Granddaddy diddled her.

The delusional “Cherokee” bit is a puzzlement to me. We’ve seen it often enough. Why in hell do people concoct easily disprovable bloodlines like that? Telling stories against yourself and your family is a kind of class marker, it seems, for deracinated, upwardly mobile “academic” or “professional” people who have little sense of heritage but want a thumbnail description of their background, so it doesn’t look like they’re just generic white trash. Saying you’re mostly “Scots-Irish” without knowing any details, the way J. D. Vance and Jessie Daniels do, ain’t going to do the trick.

One easy, obvious solution might be to claim a grand, even aristocratic lineage. (“Yes, we was Quality Folks in 1850! Owned 5000 acres of bottom land!) Alas, that quickly turns into bad Tennessee Williams or Faulkner, and may be largely inaccessible to your interlocutors, particularly if they are colored people, say, or New York Jews. That’s where the Red Indian fiction comes in handy. “We weren’t poor white trash, sir! We were—Cherokee!”

Daniels shows us a number of examples of this social pathology, fake-nonwhiteness, wherein white women so loathe being white that they attempt to pass as blacks (or, sometimes, as “Afro-Latinas” or so-called “indigenous” Red Indians). The most famous, Rachel Dolezal, has a tale that is particularly unsettling. When she was first exposed as an imitation negress who had lied her way into a leadership post at the NAACP, we were told that her parents were conventional middle-class white people. Somewhat later it came out that they had adopted four black children, some of whom apparently bullied the blond, lily-white Rachel. Dolezal claimed her parents abused them all, beating Rachel with “wooden boards” while whipping the negro adoptees with a “baboon whip.” However much of that is true, it is apparent that the Dolezal tale is really one of race-shaming, to a far more intense degree than author Daniels ever struggled with.

In order to pad the book out with varied material Daniels goes off onto many loopy tangents. Some are pretty funny and might be mistaken for parody. In a section called “FAIRY TALE WEDDINGS” AND CREATING ALL-WHITE FAMILIES she spends a number of pages ripping into bridal culture, the essential whiteness of the white-lace wedding dress, and how it stands for purity and prevention of rape and miscegenation. She complains that “If you put the term bride into a search engine, the images that appear are of mostly fair-skinned, thin, and cisgender female bodies in long white gowns.” Then, in search of new windmills to tilt at, she finds fault with wedding venues that consist of broad, verdant estates and grand old houses. “Plantation weddings,” she calls marriages at such places, even though the majority of them are not on old Southern plantations or even in the Old South.

The whiteness that undergirds the wedding services industry is clear in the continued acceptance of “plantation weddings.” Hundreds of former plantations continue to make money as wedding venues that beckon customers with ad copy about “beautiful emerald farmlands” and homes with “Southern charm,” but no mention of the history of forced labor or brutal violence that took place at those sites. In 2019, the advocacy group Color of Change demanded that wedding platforms that host advertisements for plantation venues stop carrying them. [The Knot and Pinterest agreed to avoid wording that celebrated the antebellum South, but] Martha Stewart Weddings and other platforms never even responded to the demand from Color of Change.”

Comment: Martha Stewart Weddings and those “other platforms” clearly understood that such petty harassment is best ignored. This “Color of Change” outfit is hardly an “advocacy group.” Like Black Lives Matter, it’s a black shakedown outfit set up as a not-for-profit. But instead of rioting in the streets and burning down cities, Color of Change intimidates and begs through the internet.

Although not every bride, and certainly not even most brides, want to host their wedding at a former enslaved labor camp, the fact is that the wedding industry caters to the buying habits of their largest demographic and the one that sees nothing wrong with plantations as wedding venues: white heterosexual women….

Weddings have traditionally been a celebration of heterosexuality. but as sociologist Jane Ward points out in her insightful 2020 book The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, the American construction of modern heterosexuality is inseparable from white-supremacist gender norms…

This is then followed by several daffy pages arguing that heterosexuality is itself an artifice, and has been promoted in Western culture primarily to promote white supremacism, eugenics, and disenfranchisement of the less fortunate races.

A less silly, but more useless bit of padding comes in when Daniels quotes at length from Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness (which I reviewed here in 2019). Metzl’s book is weak and tendentious in many respects, using selective statistics and outlandish examples. But nothing he says dovetails with Daniels’ ideology that nuclear families, heterosexuality, and big white weddings at the Farm ‘n’ Barn Event and Conference Center, are destructive and must be dismantled. Metzl’s argument is much simpler. From my review:

Metzl has one central idea: Right-wing Americans are why we can’t have nice social services and healthcare reform. This is because the gun-obsessed, low-information white people think that public-health and social programs mostly benefit poor blacks and other non-whites, and so they vote against those programs. (Incidentally, these people are very unhealthy, so if they get sick, they brought it on themselves.)

Daniels uses Metzl’s irrelevant study as a lead-in to something much more gripping and personal. When Daniels was 21, her mother Shirley committed suicide. It wasn’t a fancy suicide. Just a fifth of vodka, a few vials of pills, and into bed you go. Easy-peasy, she knew what she was doing.

But daughter Jessie tells herself, has told herself for years, that Shirley ended it all at age 48 because she always tried too hard to be too nice, to spend all her time on housework, to be the dutiful wife and mother. It left her with a feeling of worthlessness, Daniels believes, and finally the despair was too much. (Surely you’ve read The Feminine Mystique?) And this is why we have to stop being Nice White Ladies and why we must dismantle White Supreemisn.




Review—Royal Navalese: A Glossary of Forecastle and Quarterdeck Words and Phrases

Commander John Irving, Royal Navy
Royal Navalese
(originally published 1946)
London: Focal Point Publications, 2020

Somebody recently gifted me with this trim, entertaining little book. Perhaps because of the season, I immediately identified it as one of that peculiar species of “Christmas books”: small volumes, usually elegantly designed, illustrated with line drawings, and often found stacked near the bookseller’s cash register in December.

As the subtitle tells you, this is a glossary of nautical jargon. Some of the expressions evidently originated in the Royal Navy, others are simply slang picked up from other services or the World Beyond. Many are extremely funny, a few are risqué, the best are brain-scaldingly obscure.

Marry the Gunner’s Daughter, To. To get a whipping—an old-Navy expression but one that is still sometimes heard. In days gone by, when a ‘boy’ was ordered a dozen of the best with the cane for some offence, he was secured face down across the breech of a gun to ensure that official retribution should fall across a suitably tightened part of his anatomy.

Foo-Foo Egg. An egg of more than doubtful age and edibility. The term hails from Chinaside where John Chinaman buries an egg in especially unsanitary surroundings and keeps it there maybe for fifty years before he eats it as an especial delicacy.

Then you have something like “Low-Down, The” which is herein cited as an Americanism, “The inside information about something.”  For me the phrase conjures up Runyonesque characters and mid-century tabloid journalism (e.g., Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer’s New York Confidential: The Lowdown on the Big Town, 1948). As the book at hand, Royal Navalese, was first published in 1946, it tells us the phrase had made its way into the RN lexicon  by the Second World War. Good to know.

John Irving, we read on the dust jacket, was a naval gunnery expert who served in the Royal Navy from 1941 to 1945, and had earlier seen action at the Battle of Jutland (1916). But the book is very much a joint effort between Commander Irving and his wife Beryl, who was a noted children’s book writer and illustrator. Here Beryl Irving decorates the alphabetical headings with delicate, wry, line drawings that have a distinctive 19th century feel, very close to W. S. Gilbert’s cartoons for his Bab Ballads. In fact there’s a whiff of Gilbert & Sullivan throughout this book, in text and in pictures:

I gather the book was out of print for many years, though I see copies of the old edition at places like AbeBooks and Amazon for around $80. But the co-creators’ son David Irving, the celebrated historian, had the whole thing newly typeset and published recently (2020). It doesn’t have his mother’s illuminated, if nearly illegible, cover design but it’s currently priced at $15.00 at Focal Point Publications/David Irving Books.

The 1946 edition.

It’s a book to be thumbed through at random. Some expressions are so obvious, or long-embedded in common parlance, I wondered whether they really had a nautical origin at all. E.g., “Looney Bin. The sailor’s name for a lunatic asylum, ‘the observation ward’ at a naval hospital, or a psychopathic centre.”

Also still popular and current:

Bumph. A vulgarism, but one in very frequent use for it refers to the never-ending spate of printed and written forms, orders, hand-outs and instructions, amendments and cancellations whose volume rolls daily onward. [N.B. Originally meant toilet roll, I believe, but mainly the very cheap, old-fashioned pulpy sort.]

Chop-Chop! In a hurry; Hurry up! Pidgin English from the Chinese coast.

And finally, the odd-but-intriguing:

‘Breadcrumbs!’ In a Gun-room Mess, should the conversation verge upon subjects too advanced or too indelicate for the hearing of the younger midshipmen, the Senior Sub-Lieutenant will order ‘Breadcrumbs!’ The ‘young gentlemen’ are then required immediately to stuff their fingers in their ears and continue to block all sound until the order is rescinded.

Off White. Half caste.

Trick Cyclists. Psychiatrists.

Eyetie. Italian. [Which is funny because there’s elsewhere a cross-reference: “Macaroni. Italian: see Eyetie.” And we also have, “Ice creams. Italian.”]






Pep Wheat Flakes

I did a cartoon treatment of the Big Eight CPA firms around 1980. For some reason Peat Marwick (later Peat Marwick KPMG) had the Pep Wheat Flakes guy. Free association.

I was thinking of the Pete’s Bicycle Shop guy in New Haven, who never failed to advertise in every and any Yale student publication, 1930-1980. “Everybody Knows Pete!”

This had nothing to do with financial accounting, but they loved it at Touche Ross. Peat Marwick had ESSO/Exxon, while Touche had to settle for Associated Dry Goods and Chrysler.



The Selfie Poet

Rolleiflex selfie of Philip Larkin and Monica Jones in Paignton, Devon, circa 1957. (From Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, 1993.)

He’s been dead for 37 years, but the Philip Larkin literary industry keeps burbling along, fueled by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of titillating tales, spicy correspondence, and uncollected reviews, diary scraps and photographs. He’s been the subject of stage plays and TV docudramas, countless critical essays and monographs…and no end in sight.

Just last year we were treated to a new memoir about Larkin and Monica Jones, his longtime colleague and—inamorata? soulmate? caretaker?

“Philip Larkin’s Muse, Monica Jones, Revealed as a Racist” screamed one typical headline. As clickbait this subject was so tasty that The Times (London) reviewed the book three times.

Philip Larkin was vilified after his death for his racism, misogyny and philandering. Now the bigotry of his muse has been exposed in a book…

A ditty hitherto attributed to Larkin read: “Prison for the strikers / Bring back the cat / Kick out the n*****s / How about that?” Any idea that this was satirical is tempered by her once telling Sutherland she planned to vote for the British National Party.

Antisemitism appears to have been Jones’s primary racial preoccupation. A letter she wrote in 1960 about a dinner referred to “a young Y*d publisher” and she later described a female philosopher as a “mincing lisping foreign Jew dwarf”.

Asterisks courtesy The Times. [1]

This is a good example of how far afield the literary tabloid-sensationalism has crept with regard to Larkin. Back in the 1990s we had exposés of Larkin’s odd family and odder love affairs. A decade later we were treated to Larkin’s scurrilous correspondence with Kingsley Amis and others. (Seems they both liked jazz…and porn.) And now apparently we’ve moved into the outer suburbs of the subject, where we trawl through the mean-girl thoughts of the poet’s girlfriends.

Ironically the author of this book quoted above, John Sutherland, was for many years a friend of both Philip Larkin and Monica Jones. Sutherland explains that he originally intended the book to rehabilitate Monica’s reputation, but somehow it just didn’t come out sympathetically when he set it down on paper. And Sutherland couldn’t resist setting it all down. It was too saucy and scandalous, and that stuff always sells when Larkin’s involved. [2]

So when did this Larkin boom begin? Loosely speaking, Philip Larkin first came onto most people’s radar during the Margaret Thatcher era. Meeting him at a dinner in 1982, the Prime Minister gushed like a schoolgirl about how he was her favorite poet. Whereupon a dubious Larkin asked which of his poems was her favorite! So the PM quickly misquoted a line from one of his poems, the title to which she did not recall.

This misquote endlessly impressed Larkin. It told him that Mrs. Thatcher was truly searching old memory banks, and not reciting something she’d learned just that afternoon. [3]

Two years later Poet Laureate John Betjeman passed away, and Mrs. Thatcher offered the post to Philip Larkin. But Larkin didn’t want to be Poet Laureate. No, he preferred his relative obscurity as librarian at the University of Hull, on the bracing North Sea. He didn’t want to have to go on the telly or write vers d’occasion on demand. No doubt he noticed that Betjeman’s own late-career stuff was pretty awful. Besides, Larkin thought he had become old and fat, and figured he was going to die soon. As indeed he did, of throat cancer, at the end of 1985.

Selfie with newspaper, 1957.

The first version of his Collected Poems came out in 1988, and then Selected Letters in 1992. But the interest in Larkin really took off in early 1993, when fellow poet Andrew Motion published Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, a fat, sympathetic, but perhaps too revelatory biography. [4] Motion’s book was generously illustrated with photographs, and invited hoots of mockery in the London media when in March 1993 some newspapers reviewed it alongside lavish photo spreads of Larkin and his various girlfriends and other companions. Larkin at Oxford, Larkin in Devon, Larkin in Hull, Larkin in the Channel Islands. It was as though some anonymous photographer just followed him around for much of his life.

Much later we learned that the photographer was often Larkin himself. He was an avid taker of selfies a half-century or more before Instagram. Usually his self-portraits were medium-format black-and-whites, done in available light with a Rolleiflex atop a tripod. He took them using the timer setting or maybe a shutter-release cable. [5]

I had a friend named Simon Hoggart who was among other things the “Parliamentary sketch writer” (a kind of gossip columnist) for The Guardian. Simon told me that the journo folks in Clerkenwell and Westminster were all a-twitter about a campy photo of a simpering, sandaled Larkin in 1955, with his hands clasped upon a knee. (“Did you see that picture of him at the beach?”) Andrew Motion says the picture was taken by Monica Jones during a holiday on Sark, and maybe it was. I say it has all the appearance of a jokey Larkin selfie. [6]

The notorious “camp” photo on Sark, 1955. Or 1957? Either a selfie or by Monica Jones. (From Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, 1993.)

A bigger subject of wide-eyed wonder in 1993 was Motion’s description of Larkin’s father. Sydney Larkin was City Treasurer of Coventry in the 1920s, 30s, 40s. We’re told he had a great admiration for Nazi Germany, and was even a pen-pal of Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht, the German economics minister. According to a onetime Hull professor who was Larkin’s drinking companion,

Sydney had been “an ardent follower of the Nazis and attended several Nuremberg rallies during the 1930s; he even had a statue of Hitler on the mantelpiece…which at the touch of a button leapt into a Nazi salute”… As late as 1939, Sydney had Nazi regalia decorating his office in City Hall, and when war was declared he was ordered by the Town Clerk to remove it. … He didn’t even change his tune when Coventry was blitzed in November 1940. Instead, he congratulated himself on his foresight in having ordered one thousand cardboard coffins the previous year, and continued to praise “efficient German administration,” while disparaging Churchill—who had, he thought, “the face of a criminal in the dock.” [7]

Classic, priceless, hilarious stuff. But how much of it to believe? Back in March 1993 I think we  believed most of it. This was still the age of Alan Clark, the far-Right Tory diarist, MP,  and sometime Thatcher government minister, who once responded to a taunt by saying, “I am not a fascist. Fascists are shopkeepers. I am a Nazi.” The story of Larkin’s father was edgy, but not all that outré. It was rather chic, in fact, to have had Blackshirt tendencies.

But while some of these stories about Sydney seem to be true (they’ve been corroborated), others are most likely romantic, imaginative embellishment on the part of Philip Larkin. Because right after telling us about Nuremberg, and the push-button Hitler doll, and the excellent deal on cardboard coffins, biographer Andrew Motion pretty much implies that these stories came mainly from Larkin himself, back in the 1950s and 60s:

Sydney Larkin was generous to his son, and often indulged him, but nevertheless strutted through his early life with a singular arrogance. He was intolerant to the point of perversity, contemptuous of women, careless of other people’s feelings or fates, yet at the same time excitingly intellectual, inspirationally quick-witted and (at least in the matter of books) unpredictably catholic in his tastes. Everything Larkin disliked or feared in his father was matched by something he found impressive or enviable… As the first half of Larkin’s childhood dripped away, the mixture of feelings he had for his family gradually thickened. By early adolescence…it had turned into rage. “Please believe me,” he told his first important friend, “when I say that half my days are spent in black, surging, twitching, boiling HATE!!!”  [8]

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Larkin knew it. He was very much his father’s boy, and was both embarrassed and exalted by that.

Herein lies, I submit, the core of the Larkin genius. It’s a depressive, self-loathing attitude that nevertheless focuses hard on loathing of self, family, and present surroundings, and yields painful and satirical insights. Bad selfies, sad selfies, good selfies, but selfies nevertheless.


[1] “Philip Larkin’s Muse, Monica Jones, Revealed as a Racist,” The Sunday Times, London.  April 11, 2021.

[2] John Sutherland, Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves. London: W&N, 2021.

[3] The poem is a thorny thing called “Deceptions,” about a ruined girl and her rapist. It wasn’t one of Larkin’s better known poems in 1982, but has become so since, thanks to Mrs. Thatcher’s mangled recitation: “All afternoon her mind lay open like a drawer of knives.”

[4] Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. London: Faber & Faber, 1993.

[5] Many of his photographs are collected, and his selfie technique explained, in The Importance of Elsewhere: Philip Larkin’s Photographs, edited by Richard Bradford. London: Frances Lincoln, 2015.

[6] Obscure literary trivia: Around the same time Philip Larkin and Monica Jones holidayed on Sark—one of the smaller Channel Islands—the writer Bill Hopkins visited the island. Bill used it as a setting for his legendary/notorious novel The Divine and the Decay. Did Larkin and Hopkins ever cross paths, there or elsewhere?

[7] Motion, Philip Larkin, 12.

[8] Motion, Philip Larkin, 13.


About a year ago I stumbled across the online Willis A. Carto correspondence archive. It’s a source of never-ending delight.

Officially it’s called the Willis A. Carto Library— http://willisacartolibrary.com —which it literally is, as it sells rare and not-so-rare volumes from the late Mr. Carto’s extensive private collection of books. Mainly though, it’s a revealing trove of letters and other documents from the second half of the 20th century. Like an online Presidential library, it’s full of once-secret, strange & surprising stuff that extensively revises our received history of Conservatism and the Dissident Right.

For example, there are vague old legends in the Right-o-sphere that Willis Carto was generally at odds with, or was disdained by, such notable personages as Revilo P. Oliver, Wilmot Robertson, or John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. This appears to be nonsense. At least during the late 1950s, Mr. Carto had a lively friendship with both Oliver and Welch. WAC, like RPO, was a Birch Society member in its early days, before they both turned sour on Welch. (Note: I’m not linking specific pages or sections, because they are readily searchable within the site.)

An amusing if inconsequential eye-opener for me was learning that Mr. Carto, whom I and his wife and employees (and seemingly everyone else) called Willis, was once known as Al. This comes out in correspondence from the mid-1950s, when Liberty Lobby was first founded in San Francisco, under the name “Liberty & Property.” Was Al just a salesman’s front, a name that sounded friendlier than the formal, chilly Willis? (“That Al, he’s a regular, affable guy! You know me, Al!”) Or was it a private, family name, for close kin and intimates? I just don’t know. Maybe there were laughs aplenty when folks found out that Al was short for Allison, his middle name: thus Willis he became and Willis he stayed. Right here I’m mostly referring to him as Mr. Carto, though even that can be fraught with problems. One of the first people he ever introduced me to was ex-spook Victor Marchetti, who proceeded to lecture me that Mr. Carto’s name is properly pronounced Car-TO. Because it’s French, you see, originally Carteaux. I suspect this faux pedantry was just a hobbyhorse of Victor’s. He was probably in mind of the French general at Toulon in 1793 whose captain of artillery was 24-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte. But I digress.

Now let’s go to August 1965. Someone calling himself Wilmot (or W.J.) Robertson sends Liberty Lobby (headquartered near Capitol Hill in D.C.) a huge doorstop of a manuscript called The Dispossessed Majority. This finds its way to Willis A. Carto, Liberty Lobby’s “Secretary-Treasurer,” as he styles himself. WAC reads it, makes notes and suggestions, and these are deeply appreciated by the author. As both men were living in the San Francisco Bay area for much of the 1950s and 60s, it’s not surprising they eventually get together in November 1965 for dinner at Robertson’s house in Berkeley.

By now they’re good friends, and they have a good dinner. Mr. Carto doesn’t think Liberty Lobby is an appropriate publisher for the book. His idea rather is private publication, with advertising in appropriately targeted journals. (Which is what Wilmot Robertson ended up doing. I first noticed the book in early 1973, in an ad in American Opinion.) On the other hand, Mr. Carto finds Robertson’s manuscript very similar, topically speaking, to his new magazine, Western Destiny.[1] And in due course a excerpt from the manuscript, bylined “Wilmot Robertson,” appears in Western Destiny.[2]

At that time Wilmot Robertson usually signed his letters W. J. Robertson. But early on, he clued-in Mr. Carto to his true identity. So sometimes in letters the puckish Willis addresses him as “Wilmot” (with quotes), and other times he calls him Humphrey (his real name).

Another scribe Mr. Carto sought for Western Destiny was a genuine seasoned professional. A celebrity in fact: the funny, irascible Westbrook Pegler. Now 70 years old, living in Tucson, Arizona, and cut off without a penny from the Hearst and Scripps-Howard syndicates he enriched for forty years as top columnist.

Young Willis Carto first wrote to him in 1948, and now calls him “Peg,” which is how Mr. Pegler signs himself. Writing to Willis in 1964, Peg lets it all hang out:

Goddam it, I am one of the best reporters we ever had and here the Jews have me muzzled and nobody else will write a peep about some very dangerous things. The negroes are close to wild revolution under the stimulation of the Kennedy machine. They could overthrow Johnson any time. [sic] New York is on the brink. Nobody ever heard of this Shriver until he married one of those Irish belles and now he runs the sinister CIA. Bob Welch is yellow and hiding out. His organization is disgusted with him and that letter which his wife wrote me very clearly invites the belief that my work was unpalatable to the ADL and curtailed contributions.

There can be blood on the moon in this land. Our violent crime rate down this way makes Dallas looks like a Methodist camp meeting.

The NY papers madly fomented the “march” on Washington for a whole dam year under the Kennedys’ auspices, driving white people into corners and now the whites in New York are afraid to go window shopping or to ride the subways at night and no authority is more to blame than the American press and the Kenndys. [sic] What makes people believe revolution can’t happen here?

Peg may be three sheets to the wind here. He makes no sense when he says Sargent Shriver is Director of the CIA. John McCone was Director from 1961 to 1965, while Sarge was busy with the Peace Corps. (Then again, perhaps Peg knows something we don’t.)

But no matter. Mr. Carto is looking for name-brand contributors to his new journal. He sends Peg a copy of Western Destiny, and suggests that Peg—once the highest-paid columnist for King Features Syndicate—write for it:

….let me know if you could do a short article once in awhile and on which subjects? Could you do one on how the Catholic Church has changed here in the US in its attitude on Communism and Jews?

Westbrook Pegler was definitely Catholic, but his métier had been sports and politics, not Church affairs, and it is doubtful whether he was paying much attention to the aftermath of Vatican II. Mr. Carto conversely was not Catholic, but he followed such things with a keen eye. At one point he lectured Wilmot Robertson on the burgeoning Leftism in the Catholic Church in America, something to which Robertson had been oblivious in his early draft of The Dispossessed Majority; and Robertson was grateful for the corrections.

Now let’s move on to William F. Buckley, Jr. WFB is on hand here with cordial, if not quite chummy correspondence, from 1955 to 1960. Our Mr. Carto begins by proposing a few National Review articles, to be penned by himself or Lawrence Dennis. Come 1957, he warns Mr. Buckley that the Anti-Defamation League is trying to smear National Review as a bigoted anti-Catholic hate sheet. No doubt the ADL were doing this, as well as defaming Buckley and his family in other ways. [3] But the notion of National Review and WFB being anti-Catholic is still pretty funny, all things considered.

WFB wrote back to WAC sporadically, but eventually cooled on his fellow young conservative entrepreneur, breaking off relations around 1960. The cause of the break wasn’t Mr. Carto’s Bircher connections, or his hobnobbing with the likes of American fascist Lawrence Dennis, or his wish for National Review to push the conservative case against Hawaiian statehood. [4] No, indeed, it was about differences over…trade policy!

Dear Mr. Carto [Buckley writes in 1960], We did indeed endorse the Liberty Lobby, but would have done so with less enthusiasm had we known it would direct its efforts to erecting high tariff walls, which I view as antipathetic to liberty.

WFB then goes on to defend his opposition to tariffs as an opinion he shares with “Frank Chodorov, Friederich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises…Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard,” et al.

In all likelihood this tariff argument was merely a convenient pretext on Buckley’s part to chase away a persistent pest whom he had come to identify with the fever-swamp right. [5] Nevertheless this dry exchange points up how the moral rot at National Review was there at the beginning. The magazine’s “conservative” values revolved mainly around the sanctity of laissez-faire capitalism and free trade. For the National Review of 1960, economic libertarianism was regarded as an all-purpose magic-shield, guaranteed to protect you from legal onslaughts against housing covenants and segregated restaurants. Except, of course, it couldn’t—and didn’t.

Trade policy and tariffs also figure greatly in Mr. Carto’s correspondence with Avery Brundage (construction tycoon, Chicago hotel owner, longtime chairman of the International Olympic Committee, and one of the early-40s stars of the America First Committee).[6] There was a bill before Congress to revise New Deal-era trade rules, a bill that Mr. Carto believed was of existential importance. (“Unless the Mason bill is passed, we will be irretrievably and inevitably in world government within the next three or four years.”) Mr. Carto organizes a Trade Policy Congress, with rented headquarters at the National Press Club building, and solicits Mr. Brundage’s participation as sponsor and board member. Mr. Brundage agrees to the first, says no to the second, because the Olympics are going on (it is 1960) and he can’t mix up politics and sport.

Five years later, Carto writes Brundage at the Montecito Country Club in Santa Barbara, asking for help with a very different project. It seems Roger Pearson and his family are moving to America from England so Dr. Pearson can edit the new Western Destiny magazine. (How often WD raises its head here!) Mr. Brundage sends a check.

The funniest solicitation I’ve come across is a request to Carroll Quigley (Georgetown professor, author of Tragedy and Hope). In 1975 Mr. Carto hopes to bag Prof. Quigley as a featured speaker at Liberty Lobby’s 20th Anniversary party in Los Angeles. Prof. Quigley says no, he’s too busy, despite Mr. Carto’s tempting offer of $500, a coach class air ticket, “a sleeping room (with a bed) and all the chicken and creamed peas you can eat.” Prof. Quigley avers, however, that he might take look at a book Mr. Carto recommends. It’s called The Occult Technology of Power.[7]

Needless to say, this Carto correspondence online is but a tiny, curated fraction of 60 or 70 years’ worth of letters and other documents. It was a massive undertaking to sort out these files and scan them in as images, along with written commentary, in a WordPress website. I hope I don’t sound churlish or ungrateful if I say I wish to see more, more, more.


[1] Edited by Roger Pearson—who is still with us at 95 years of age, as we recently learned!

[2] I do not have that issue anymore, but I believe it is from 1966. All issues of Western Destiny are rare, but this number must have had a big press run, as copies were available from the Noontide Press for many years. The cover, incidentally, shows a handcuffed Francis Parker Yockey.

[3] The ADL’s Arnold Forster kept a close watch on WFB and National Review in the 1950s and 60s. He also kept a dirt file on the Buckley family, which he fed to Gore Vidal, Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, and other Left-leaning media personalities of the era. This eventually led to legal disaster for Vidal and Esquire magazine when Esquire published a slanderous Vidal piece about the Buckleys (September 1969 issue). WFB generously let Esquire work off its damages settlement by providing many years’ worth of subscription ads for National Review.

[4] Opposition to Hawaiian statehood is often portrayed in pop history as something driven by racial prejudice. The leading opponents in Congress seemed to be segregationist Southerners, and this made for a tidy explanation among politicians and newspapers in New York. But as Willis Carto liked to emphasize, there was a deep Constitutional issue as well. Not only were a majority of Hawaiian “citizens” nonwhite, only a minority of voters there were in any sense Americans by birth and ancestry. Hawaii was not created by American settlers who first developed a territory and then petitioned for statehood. The Hawaiian situation was as if the USA were to annex the Bahamas as a protectorate and then declare most Bahamians to be American citizens…after which such “citizens” might be encouraged to vote for statehood. It is poignant to recall that the first American President ostensibly born, and partially raised, in Hawaii, was Barack Obama.

[5] “Whatever you do, don’t send this to Buckley,” writes Willis Carto to Revilo Oliver in March 1958, after making some criticisms of National Review articles. “I’m already in the doghouse with him, it seems, as he not only rejects any articles I send him, he doesn’t even bother to answer letters to him now.”

[6] Avery Brundage is still tarred in the gutter press as a pro-Nazi and anti-semite because he opposed an American boycott of the Berlin Olympics back in 1936, when he was chairman of the American Olympic Committee. (He would chair the IOC from 1952 to 1972.) A related sin on his dossier is that he kept the two slowest sprinters on the American team from participating in the games. They were both Jews, as it happens. What we’re not usually told is that one of their replacements was Jesse Owens.

[7] “The Transcriber” (Author), The Occult Technology of Power: The Initiation of the Son of a Finance Capitalist into the Arcane Secrets of Economic and Political Power. First published in 1974.

Paul Fussell’s Class, 40 Years On

Paul Fussell
Class: A Guide Through the American Class System
New York: Summit Books, 1983 (First edition—many since)

Written in 1980-82 and published in 1983, Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System is one of those rare books that most literate people seem to have heard of, say they want to read if they haven’t, and have fierce opinions about whether they’ve read it or not. I see this last aspect frequently on social media. When a few people were discussing it on Twitter, one of them described it dismissively as “an old book, it’s mostly just about white people.”

My Twitter friend was trying to be helpful, I think. He wanted to disabuse us of any possible misapprehension that Prof. Fussell’s book was a treatise on urban socioeconomics and ethnicities. Because nowadays some people do in fact use “class” as a euphemism for income or race. If you’re Joe Biden, for instance, you might use “lower class,” “poor people,” and “black folks” pretty much interchangeably.

But I wanted to Twitter-shout in all caps: OF COURSE the book is mostly just about white people! Otherwise it would be called Race, or something. Even in a mock-sociology book like this one, discussion of class distinctions only makes sense within the context of a fairly homogeneous population. The same way the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York does not permit you to enter your cat or ferret. Because it’s all about dogs. Likewise Class does not examine the social habits of the Vietnamese community in Westminster, California. Because it’s not about Vietnamese.

Besides homogeneity, it also helps if you restrict your examination of class markers to a fairly tight geographical area. This is why this genre of book is so much more persistent and successful in Great Britain than in America. If you’re at Waterstone’s and you see a cartoon book about Social Stereotypes (the Telegraph Magazine actually had a long-running series by that name), you automatically know it’s going to be about upper-middle-class people in Home Counties England. But America is too vast for that sort of thing. The lower-middles don’t know the upper-middles even exist (or they think it’s all about money). Americans don’t share that many identifiable social markers and stereotypes. The closest thing perhaps is the tedious caricature of Flyover Country so beloved of the Washington Post and other Leftist organs. You know—obese people in red MAGA hats who go to Walmart.

Fussell dispensed almost entirely with Flyover Country, limiting his book’s scope mainly to the Middle Atlantic and New England region, with the occasional sneer at Texas, Hawaii, and fat people at the Minnesota State Fair. Nevertheless his funniest bits are put-downs of what he presents as the horrendous style sense of people out in the boonies. Since the Pasadena-born Fussell spent most of his professorial career in central New Jersey and Philadelphia, and traveled mostly to England and Italy, I have to wonder how he did field work on such grotesqueries as the “prole hat” you see below. My guess is that he didn’t, really. He just glimpsed them in some airport concourse, and conjured up a cockeyed explanation. But what he says is all the funnier for that:

Proles take to visor caps instinctively, which accounts for the vast popularity among them of what we must simply call the prole cap. This is the “baseball” cap made largely of plastic meshwork in primary colors (red, blue, yellow) with, in the rear, an open space crossed by a strap for self-adjustment: “One Size Fits all [Proles].” Regardless of the precise style of the prole cap, it seems crucial that it be ugly. It’s the male equivalent of the purple acrylic slacks worn by the prole’s wife… The little strap at the rear is the significant prole feature, because it demeans the buyer and user, making him do the work formerly thought the obligation of the seller, who used to have to stock numerous sizes… To achieve even greater ugliness, the prole will sometimes wear his cap back to front. This places the strap in full view transecting the wearer’s forehead, as if pride in the one-size-fits-all gadget were motivating him to display the cap’s “technology” and his own command of it.

This is Fussell at his delightful snarkiest. Nobody had a name for this pictured headgear before he named it the prole cap. Neither did anyone suggest the rationale for turning it backside-to was to show off the adjusto-strap technology. Of course this fanciful explanation isn’t quite true. It was skateboarders who started the fad of turning the visor to the rear, sometime in the 1970s. Wearing the cap hind-side-to lowered the drag coefficient, or whatever, and allowed for unobstructed vision, which might be useful when doing a 360º loop. And skateboarders didn’t wear high-profile mesh numbers like Farmer Yokel here (that would defeat the purpose) but rather tight-fitting low-profile caps, almost like those skimpy things that Italian cyclists wear. You’d have to be as old as Steve Buscemi or me to recall such sartorial trivia. As the good Professor was then in his fifties he missed it entirely.

When I attempt to gather up my favorite Fussell snippets, I find that they generally pertain to clothing and accessories:

Only six things can be made of black leather without causing class damage to the owner: belts, shoes, handbags, gloves, camera cases, and dog leashes.

Jewelry is another instant class-lowerer, like the enameled little Old Glory lapel pins worn by the insane and by cynical politicians working backward districts.

Today hats, because of their rarity, present an easier class problem than neckties. Since the felt fedora went out, upper-middle-class people can wear only the equivalent of parody hats — “Russian” fur, the L. L. Bean “Irish” tweed hat favored by Senator Pat Moynihan, or the floppy white fishing or tennis hat popular among the top classes despite its being favored by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

[Displaying your shirt collar] spread out over the jacket collar, unless you’re a member of the Israeli Knesset or teach at the Hebrew University, is flagrantly middle-class or prole—and may be even then.

Some of his best lines are still funny but very dated:

All synthetic fibers are prole, partly because they’re cheaper than natural ones, partly because they’re not archaic, and partly because they’re entirely uniform and hence boring—you’ll never find a bit of straw or sheep excrement woven into an acrylic sweater.

Smiling is a class indicator—that is, not doing a lot of it. On the street, you’ll notice that prole women smile more, and smile wider, than those of the middle and upper classes.

It’s the three prole classes that get fat: fast food and beer are two of the causes, but anxiety about slipping down a rung, resulting in nervous overeating, plays its part too, especially among high proles. Proles can rationalize their fat as an announcement of steady wages and the ability to eat out often: even “Going Out for Breakfast” is a thinkable operation for proles, if we believe they respond to the McDonald’s TV ads the way they’re conditioned to.

For me, these three are period pieces. Synthetics still meant doubleknit polyester leisure suits for men and purple polyester pantsuits for women, not tech fabrics, Gore-Tex, Ultrasuede. And I can’t imagine where Fussell saw gangs of smiling proles waddling down the pavement and gulping breakfast at McDonald’s. Perhaps my airport-concourse theory  explains all. The 1970s were the decade when people stopped dressing like the Mad Men cast when they went to the airport. They started to arrive in sweatshirts and ballcaps, and by the 1980s fashion-forward frequent flyers were doing it in two-piece nylon tracksuits, with a canvas duffelbag carry-on. The new slovenliness was perhaps connected with the fact that airlines had begun to hire stewardesses who were gay males, 55-year-old grandmothers, and colored folk. Before that, stews had a distinct “brand,” enforced by tape measures, girdle checks and uniform makeup. From what the stews told me, Pan Am gals usually had dark hair, while United mainly went for blondes. But then smart appearance no longer mattered, esprit took a dive, and the public started to board the Buses of the Air wearing any old thing. A slippery slope.

As a professor emeritus, Fussell missed the casual-Friday/casual-everyday abandonment of office dress codes circa 1995-2000, but I suspect he could have diagnosed the problem. It was a move spearheaded by tech geeks who viewed office life as a perennial cold war between Techies/Creatives and The Suits. Fussell muses upon “the social-class problems of engineers, uncertain always where they fit, whether with boss or worker, management or labor, the world of headwork, or the world of handwork.” When The Suits were top dog in Corporate Land, they enforced a dress code originally based on the uniform of counting-house clerks and bankers, circa 1820. But then tech engineers became ascendant, and they preferred a livery that was a mashup of golf wear and something you’d pull on when cleaning the garage. And so was born the Age of the Slob.

Like that other pungent snob, Wilmot Robertson, Fussell was a dab hand at coining memorable phrases to describe troublesome social phenomena. Given his fear and loathing of prole culture, it’s appropriate that his biggest contribution to the language is “Prole Drift.” It describes widespread class sinking, “the tendency in advanced industrialized societies for everything inexorably to become proletarianized.” Many of Fussell’s examples of prole drift are biased and cranky, such as the proliferation of newspaper horoscope columns, and a fortune-teller ad that ran in The New Republic in 1982. But then there astute, far-reaching complaints, such as the gradual “disappearance of service and amenity, the virtue universality of ‘self-service'”:

Self-service is ipso facto prole. Proles like it because it minimizes the risk of social contact with people who might patronize or humiliate them. All right for them, but because of prole drift we’re all obliged to act as if we were hangdog no-accounts.

Coming out in late 1983, Class appeared at almost the same time as the unspeakable Official Yuppie Handbook, which I spoke of a while back. Unlike that sad Yuppie book Fussell’s Class has never gone out of print or slithered off into complete irrelevancy or become a nostalgia curio. It grew out of a shrewd, witty piece that Fussell wrote for The New Republic a few years earlier. (“A Dirge for Social Climbers,” July 19, 1980.) So when you open Class, you’re meeting a mindset that really jelled around 1978 or 1979. This explains a few of the book’s obsessions, and also its design and title. You see, in 1979 the English writer Jilly Cooper had published a book of similar heft, topic, and line drawings, also called Class (subtitled A View from Middle England). The resemblance is of form rather than substance, since the Cooper book chatters on about Eton ties and Clubland and Hooray Harrys—things that have no meaningful parallels in America, or at least no parallels that the average reader would be conversant with. Cooper’s Class moreover echoes earlier humor books on the theme of class and status, most notably Noblesse Oblige (by Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Osbert Lancaster, et al.) and Social Types by Ronald Searle; both of them from 1955.

These English writers all illustrated class distinctions by caricaturing familiar types of the upper and upper-middle class (familiar, that is, to their peers and neighbors). Paul Fussell couldn’t do anything like that because he wanted to draw a bigger picture, and there just aren’t enough Americans with shared history and biases. Or rather there are, but we’re mostly in little particularist tidepools. If you try depict the common stereotypes you know, you end up with something like Flannery O’Connor or John P. Marquand: an illustration of a somewhat exotic community rather than a broad-based, shared class structure. So Fussell, like Thorstein Veblen and Dwight MacDonald before him, tries to construct a general theory of American class and status. He posits an awkward, dubious taxonomy of nine distinct classes, beginning with “Top-Out-of-Sight” (so upper-upper you’ll never see them or their houses) and ending with “Bottom-Out-of-Sight,” who rank below “Destitute” and are probably institutionalized someplace. He also gives us an X class, consisting of people who don’t quite fit into any of the other nine: artists, writers, expats . . . probably a lot of the people you know.

In the end Fussell’s class system is a put-on, just an excuse to make fun of the three Prole groups (High, Mid, and Low). Some years after publishing Class, Fussell still had a lot more to say on this score, and so produced a little book called BAD—Or, the Dumbing of America (1991). BAD was pretty bad, just another opportunity for Fussell to have a go at prole pop culture.

Being a lifelong academic, Fussell didn’t really have a good sense of what other classes were about. He saw, or thought he saw, proles at the airport and shopping mall and on TV, but his notion of upper-middle-class people seems to be based on the more worldly, genteel, probably tweedy academics he met in his English departments and at scholarly conferences. Sometimes he just wings it, teases us, makes stuff up.

He informs us, bizarrely, that upper-middle-class Americans often affect an Anglomania and fascination with British royalty. “You meet people whose dinner tables ring not just with passing references to the royal family but with prolonged earnest dissertations about Charles and Lady Di and Margaret Anne and Andrew and Little Prince William.”

Have you ever encountered folks like that? I certainly haven’t, and I doubt such dinners were ever a frequent occurrence for Fussell. I assume such Royal-stans would be sluggards who make a fetish of supermarket tabloids and tabloid TV, or are themselves lower-middle-class Brits in origin, or they’re really Jewish (or maybe all three at once, as has been known to happen); in which case they’re certainly not upper-middle-class Heritage Americans. I’ve known only one American who ever even mentioned the Royals in dinner table conversation, and that was the eldest of the four Koch brothers. (Certainly an Upper, if not actually Top-Out-of-Sight in the Fussell taxonomy.) And Fred Koch didn’t say “Charles and Lady Di,” but correctly referred to them as the Prince of Wales, etc. He was making some brief point about a charitable venture he was affiliated with. Fred was no more than a passing acquaintance of that family. But he did have a recent Christmas card from “Lilibet and Phil.”

Is Fussell just having a big joke with us here, as with his X Class and those enameled Old Glory lapel pins “worn by the insane and by cynical politicians”? That’s a pretty good guess. Fussell himself never took his Class book very seriously and was surprised when people did, or when they were alarmed or offended to the point of sending hate mail—or when they studied it as a vademecum, a literal “Guide Through the American Status System.” As Fussell gleefully admitted in his memoir, Doing Battle (1996):

This was hardly a serious book, for often the presentation was conducted in the comical voice of an excessively earnest, pedantic professor of sociology, accustomed to rigid classifications and pseudo-scientific method.

Whimsically, he supplied Class with an author’s note that went, “In real life, Paul Fussell is Donald T. Regan Professor of English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania,” that being the new English chair to which Fussell was appointed. But when the London paperback edition was being prepared, an editor added a superfluous comma, making the sentence, “In real life Paul Fussell is Donald T. Regan, Professor of English…”

Thus for months, and it’s still happening, I would receive anti-fan mail from England beginning as follows:

Dear Professor Regan,
Your book is so offensive that I quite understand why you feel it necessary to hide your actual identity behind such a ludicrous pseudonym as “Paul Fussell.”



The Jersey Side

One of the most “talented and promising” cartoonists of the 1980s was a slight acquaintance of mine from Hoboken, Jim Ryan. Jim was young, blond, eight feet tall, and drew in a classic style with steel nibs and india ink. He sometimes did full-page comics for Mary Peacock’s feature section in The Village Voice.

One was called “The Jersey Side,” about Manhattanites getting into a panic and desperately moving to Hoboken, c. 1985. (Very close to home, that.) This later became the title of a weekly strip in The Hoboken Reporter.

A collection of the strips was published in 1987 by Rogers & Cogswell, a bookshop on Washington Street in the ‘boken. Not exactly Andrews McMeel Syndicate, but then The Jersey Side was hardly Calvin and Hobbes in terms of broad appeal. A book about the Mile Square City is about as narrow-bore as you can get.

But the pen-and-ink line stands up admirably, and makes one mourn for what we have lost.*

*The Doubleday Bookstores on Fifth Avenue in NYC, for example…note sticker on the back.

Hey Frenchy! I Need Some Cartoons!

A short while ago I wrote a stately, eye-glazing memoir about knowing Colin Flaherty for thirty years. Colin had died on January 11, 2022.

Now I keep remembering the good parts I left out, either out of genuine forgetfulness, or because I didn’t wish to talk about myself too much.

Colin and I first met at a newspaper picnic in Mission Bay Park, San Diego, around July 1991. He had big black sunglasses, a big cigar and was lying back in some kind of beach chair or chaise longue.

1993. I got Colin to write a column for Gallery News.

I don’t know how we were introduced or got to chatting, but I think I said I was probably going to have a terrific headache soon because I’d been drinking (what?—wine? beer? tequila shooters?) out in the bright afternoon sunlight.

Colin told me he didn’t drink at all, because he once got a DUI when going through Colorado. That wouldn’t spook most people, but maybe it was a problem for him because he was riding a motorcycle, which rather eliminates a designated-driver option.

I just don’t know, and probably never will. I don’t like to inquire after people’s clean-and-sober sagas anyway, it’s too much like an AA meeting.

A more interesting revelation was that we’d grown up near each other. He at one end of Brandywine Creek (its mouth, actually, in Wilmington, Delaware), and I at the other, about 15 miles to the north. In between there was Chadds Ford, PA, famous for Andrew Wyeth and the Battle of Brandywine, one of the many routs and massacres the Continental Army suffered in 1777.

Colin always liked to announce me as “San Diego’s Funniest Cartoonist.” For a brief shining moment, maybe I was, when I was doing editorial cartoons and illustrations for local papers. I had a cunning, old-school, brush-and-ink style that worked very well when I had to do strips of Mayor Maureen O’Connor claiming the broken sewage pipe in the bay was just an act of God, “a natural disaster.”

But—to answer your next question—I didn’t have sufficient mainstream perspective or malleability of imagination to pursue a career as a political cartoonist.

Rare quickie, 2003, in crowquill-type pen and india ink. Here the vested-interest enemies are anti-horse people, not even bothering to pose as environmentalists.

Nevertheless Colin continued to flog my talents for the next fifteen years, whether I was California or New York or London or Paris. He included cartoons as part of his public-relations packages, even though most of the work I did for him was limp and tawdry, in my humble opinion.

Mainly they were simple, absurdist, derogatory cartoons about some minor voting initiative in small-town SoCal. But he paid me very well. And it was all tax free, old man!

Because I never declared my earnings from freelance clients. Payment in personal checks and cash meant that the thousands I might make from these and other freelance work each year were pretty much untraceable. I had a steady job in the graphics department of a major banking corporation, so the IRS wasn’t going to investigate my middling income too closely.

Another reason I was happy to do them was that I liked to explore different techniques. Drawing with a Wacom tablet, for example, vs my traditional brush-and-ink. Unfortunately this meant that I became more focused on technology and effective online presentation, and less on the delight of cartooning.

From 2005. TV’s Zelda from Dobie Gillis grasps at straws to halt development in semi-rural Santee.

As I suggested before, I was usually living far, far away. For a while I spent a month or two every year in England and France, training for marathons and imagining that I was writing a novel. But a good deal of the time was spent drawing cartoons for Colin.

I’d be sitting in some Paris café with my laptop, and my Vodafone would suddenly go off. It was Colin. “Hey Frenchy! I need some cartoons!”

So I’d bottle myself up in my hotel room or flat for a couple of days, doing nothing but ha-ha drawings about minuscule matters 6000 miles away.

September 2004. Something about Carlsbad or Encinitas.

Anyway, as a result of this, I had a very good idea of what was happening in Colin’s career, what pissant town or county politics he was being paid to influence. Santee, Bolsa Chica, Perris, Del Mar…

Politics dovetailed with business, often as not. For ten years the major client was a housebuilder named Barratt American Homes, originally a subsidiary of the Barratt Group in Great Britain. It was led by a very fine fellow from Bedford, England named Mick Pattinson.

I say very fine because I stayed in Mick’s house in Olivenhain, east of Carlsbad, for a day or two in February 2004 when Colin’s daughter was getting married nearby. I had been camping at Colin’s rented condo in Murrieta, but then Colin’s father, brother, and sister arrived for the wedding, and there was no room at the inn.

So Mick put me up in his ginormous mansion. As I did work for Colin, and Colin was Mick’s PR boffin, I was practically a blood relative.

*   *   *

The wedding itself happened at a vast catering hall in Fallbrook, an area known for its rolling estates, wineries and catering halls. I hadn’t seen Colin’s daughter in ten years, and she had no recollection of me. When Colin introduced us, I might as well have been Cousin Kate from Budapest.

Bride and groom were both very young and strikingly good-looking (as I note in my diary of the time). The wedding service itself, however, was something of a farce.

It was held outside, as though it were June rather than a cold wet day in February. The minister was a woman, more or less, with short, spiky grey hair. The sort of figure you might have seen officiating at a lesbian “holy union” at Metropolitan Community Church. She and the happy couple got some shelter by standing under the floral bridal arch. The rest of us sat on wet folding chairs and put up with the cold drizzle.

(People would ask Colin, discreetly or otherwise, why his daughter wasn’t having a Catholic wedding, where you got a great gothic church with a choir and a proper prelate. Colin’s answer: “I’m not Catholic.” He was once, apparently . . . but didn’t have the money to be one when he landed in La Jolla.)

Before the service began, we wet ones in the mosh pit looked around and took in the surroundings. There was a brick-lined man-made lagoon nearby, quite extensive, surrounding us on three sides.

“This body of water is shaped like a heart!” a young woman sitting near me said to her husband.

“More like another internal organ—liver, maybe,” came the reply.

All dialogue verbatim. I wrote it down.

Now the drizzle turned into rain. Things were hurried along, and we all ran inside to  music and cake.

After the party, Mick and I drove back in the rain to Olivenhain, first stopping off at a stripmall for some Chinese lettuce-wraps and Starbucks tea, for dinner. Then Mick sat down and worked on business while I watched TV and wandered the house.

Mick had made a big donation to the Arnold Schwarzenegger gubernatorial campaign, and in the living room of his big, near-empty Olivenhain house there stood an autographed photo of Mick and Arnold together, shaking hands. I did a spindly sketch of it. (See cut.)

Not much else in that house: a TV, a little furniture, a couple books, a basalt bust of Winston Churchill! I believe Mick had just gone through a divorce the past year.

He’d also recently bought controlling interest in Barratt American Homes, with a big loan from Bank of America. He’d completed, or planned, several developments in Olivenhain, Carlsbad, Temecula, Perris…and finally Winchester, CA, a “census-designated” tract in Riverside County, not far from Murrieta.

Winchester acquired some substance and population when Barratt built a slew of McMansions there, in a hillside development called Sagecrest or Sagewood. One of the new residents was going to be Colin Flaherty. Mick was giving Colin a big new house, I expect as payment in kind.

Right now, however, it was just a concrete shell in the ground. A day or two after the wedding, Colin took some of us on a tour of the muddy tract. We walked in the rain with our sweatshirt hoods up, stepped around puddles, walked on boards, and headed for the model houses that were already open for viewing. The decor was a mixture of colonial-rattan and Marriott-tacky. Rooms set up for TV watching, rooms with computer-terminal props, rooms with exercise treadmills . . . no room set up for books and reading, although some prop volumes were scattered here and there. I noted a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume, and Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis.

Mick lavished a lot on Colin. A few months earlier, Mick had taken Colin on a business trip to England, to meet with the parent company. During their travels they stayed at the Royal Midland Hotel in Manchester. “Where Mister Rolls met Mister Royce,” as Colin liked to repeat. That sticks in memory because I was twice in Manchester over the next few months, and once stopped at the Royal Midland, just out of curiosity. A lovely old caravanserai, though it seemed to be in the middle of renovation for years to come. But the Midland had an excellent gym in its basement, including two Concept 2 rowers.

At the time I didn’t ponder the subtext of the many cartoons I did for Colin during his Barratt period. But now I reflect that Mick Pattinson was continually struggling to put up his elegant developments, while local pols and rival property interests were continually fighting to prevent them. Mick’s opponents depicted him as a rapacious developer, always mucking up the countryside. But when I talked with him it was clear he saw himself as a humanitarian, putting up essential housing in tracts of habitable wasteland.

“We might have 200 people wanting to buy houses, but we have to turn 180 away with tears in their eyes!” Mick told me, his own eyes welling up.

On February 23, 2004, a couple days after wedding, Colin and I went to a lunch meeting in a sad café at the Murrieta golf course. (In my diary I whine that the salad with my hamburger was “just some chopped iceberg & tomato”.) Colin was seeing a colleague named Nancy, someone I’d met a couple of times during the wedding weekend. Nancy had her “mute” son with her, I note in the diary.

Nancy said she was starting a “newspaper” called Santee Life, “the purpose of which was to create phony grassroots support for Mick’s upcoming housing project” (diary). Santee Life hadn’t launched yet. Nancy said she planned to start it with a “web presence.” I gather this is where I would come in, though I heard no more of the project.

Nancy had formerly lived in Rancho Bernardo (an upscale “master planned community” built ex nihilo in the 1970 and 80s), but she flipped that home and moved to Las Vegas. Now she owned one house there and was trying to buy another. But the builder wouldn’t let her, because he had a waiting list. Sounds like Mick Pattinson. Here was the 2004 housing bubble in microcosm.

In one of these locales Nancy had encountered a pet skunk. She wrote a poem about it. She suggested maybe I could do drawings for it.

Nancy reminded me of another lady colleague Colin introduced me to at the Del Mar racetrack in 1997. She was a publicist named Lisa, and she too used a sort of “newspaper” as a PR mouthpiece. Except this local journal focused on Del Mar, and it actually published a number of print issues. No “web presence” nonsense. That would have been futile and propeller-head in 1997.

Fake newspapers, astroturfed public support, press releases, cartoons…it all sounds like nine-tenths of a scam, and for the pure of heart, perhaps it was. But this was politics, and the other side was doing the same thing. The difference was, the other side liked to dress up their agenda as some high-minded, environmental initiative. Using that as a front, they’d then seek private and governmental support from all over, using special interests and slush funds to promote their pet projects.

And they had another weapon. They knew it was Colin who was masterminding the political message in favor of the Barratt developments. So they persuaded a Sacramento outfit called the Fair Political Practices Commission to claim that Colin had made illegal (or rather, unreported) donations to political activities.

Pete Wilson

California FPPC put out the word that Colin had broken campaign finance rules thirty-eight (38) times in 1997-98 and was therefore being fined $76,000. (LA Times, Sept 12, 2003.) One of these purportedly illegal donations was $4000 for a birthday cake and balloons for Governor Pete Wilson. Anyway Colin never paid that “fine,” nor did the FPPC boondoggle ever make any serious effort to collect it. As recently as October 29, 2021 the FPPC sent him a letter, limply threatening to garnish the $76,000 if Colin won the California Lottery!

(Full letter here.)

FPPC never made any serious effort to collect their “fine” because that would have triggered a legal response, and most likely their claim would have been vacated by the court. The FPPC allegations were harassment and vendetta, pure and simple. Significantly, after the LA Times ran that one story (basically an FPPC press release), there was no follow-up or resolution.

I am still personally exercised by this because I myself was put through interrogations via phone, by one Dennis Pellon at FPPC in Sacramento. I was identified as one of a number of people who made a token donation to Colin’s 1997 political campaign in Perris, California. I gave $50, or maybe $25. I was happy to make that little contribution, you betcha. Colin had paid me many times that for graphic and web work in the past year. Not surprisingly, Pellon couldn’t frame my little bagatelle as “money laundering” (to use FPPC’s odd choice of words). After two or three phone calls he gave up.

Were all donors flagged and harassed by FPPC? I don’t know. I may have been because I mailed it from a home address in Seattle, where I lived briefly. A tiny donation from 1100 miles away should always look suspicious, because political fundraisers like to pretend they’re getting their money and moral support from a broad base of locals.

But of course they almost never do.

February 2005

Postscript. On my way back to the San Diego airport next day—I mean, February 24, 2004—I stopped in at Ocean Beach, on the the ocean side of Point Loma. Both Colin and I had lived there at various times in the 80s and 90s. It had always been a raffish place, but right now it seemed more rundown than ever. Dirty, desolate, mostly abandoned. Or maybe it was just that I was there on a chilly, wet, dark day in February.

A few weeks later I flew to Paris, then entrained for London, and en-bused to see friends in Oxford; then on to Manchester and Leeds, where I took dismal pictures of myself on dark, drizzly days; and then down to Torquay, also very dark and drizzly; and back to wet London, and Paris of the slate-grey skies (there was no sun anywhere that season); finally via Air France to New York…because it was time to get back to work. This all seems so crazy today. I worked on my novel and did a couple of cartoons for Colin.

Whom I saw again a few weeks later, May 2004. Colin’s new home was barely finished, vast and empty, but with that new-house smell. I left a minivan-load of my belongings in his garage.

Shortly before moving from Seattle in 1998, I’d stored belongings in a Public Storage space near the airport. A couple years before that, when I moved from San Diego to London, I’d put all my stuff in a storage space in San Diego. And now, crazy at it seemed, I was moving my goods from Seattle back to Southern California. In retrospect it all seems manic and improvident, but 2004 was a crazy year.

After getting to Winchester, I sorted out a few books, and some drawings, and my old Prat™ portfolio, and flew them back with me to New York the next day.

And here’s the capper: everything else I left in Colin’s garage went up the spout around 2008. The economy crashed, Barratt American went bankrupt, Colin moved the basement contents to his son’s house near San Diego, then the son had to give up his house (he was in the Air Force and suddenly deployed). Colin went on a hitchhiking trip and wrote a memoir about it, and then a few more books that were far more popular and notorious.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” An expression I first heard from Colin, sometime around October or November 1997. Seriously, I’d never heard it before. “Clichés for every occasion,” he added.

It was a motto he could follow, I never could. “If it’s not perfect, I don’t want to bother,” is more along my habit of thinking. Makes life very hard.

Cartoon ideas for the Qualcomm account, 1997.




Intersectional Beauty Tips

Sabrina Strings

Fearing the Black Body:
The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia

New York: New York University Press. 2019

This was a yummy, provocative idea for a book that didn’t quite work out. Its proposition is that fat-shaming and racism and white supreemism are all part of the same deal. Their history is intertwined. Hundreds of years ago, White  Europeans looked at the strange, repellent physiognomies and fleshy bodies of the African Negro, the Bushman and the Hottentot, and were both fascinated and repelled.

As a result, in the fullness of time, White women evolved a beauty ideal that prized clear, fair skin, chiseled features, and—most significantly of all—a slender, even anemic-looking figure!

Or, to quote the author’s words at the end of book, describing the argument she believes she’s just spent 200 pages successfully propounding:

For decades, white feminist scholars and historians focused largely on the impact of the “thin ideal” on middle-and upper-class white women. They claimed that the thin ideal was oppressive, but also suggested that they did not know how it developed. This book endeavors to address that question, adding a much-needed intersectional component to the analysis of the development of fat phobia… [T]he fear of the black body was integral to the creation of the slender aesthetic among fashionable white Americans.

Of course the whole thesis is silly and shallow. Feminist rhetoric nothwithstanding, there’s no mystery to why women who can be stylish and slender choose to be that way. It has to do with aesthetic sense, physical and mental health, a sense of well-being, & c., & c.

The “slender aesthetic” is not some cultural construct formed by marxian struggles of class and race. The human figures are lithe and slender on Greek amphora, in Medieval manuscripts, in Early Netherlandish painting. Moreover, White people do not, by and large, bother themselves much about what Cullud Folx think and do. They may notice, and get annoyed, when too many 400 lb. African-Americans wander into their field of vision, filling whole bus seats and blocking subway entrances. They might even vaguely wonder how it is that anyone could become that obese. But that’s really about as far as it goes. Whatever the author might really believe, Whites simply do not view Blacks as negative role models whom they fear turning into.

And lastly: there are Black women who keep themselves fit and stylish without (I assume) imagining they’ve gone and sold out to the honkies. The author of this book, for example.

Sabrina Strings—assistant professor of sociology at UC Irvine, as well as a 200-hour certified yoga teacher, as she proudly informs us—never really brings home the bacon. She can’t prove her case because she can’t formulate it in her own head. I wouldn’t have minded if she’d given us some loopy, conspiratorial argument—e.g., Whites forced Blacks to become fat in order to perpetuate Enslavement and Systemic Racism! That might have been fun. Instead, what we get is limp, damp, inchoate theory: poorly explained or illustrated, even though sprinkled with vague maunderings gleaned from such faddists as Michel Foucault [1] and Noel Ignatiev.

In a style common to young academics in the social sciences, Strings fills out her dissertation with all sorts of marginally relevant research that she’s gathered up, magpie-like, over the years. She gives us Art History slide lectures about Renaissance pictures of docile Negresses, followed by vast, fleshy European women of the 17th century . . . who eventually disappear into prim, bird-like Englishwomen painted by Thomas Gainsborough in the 18th. We are treated to numerous, often conflicting descriptions of Black Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries, followed by a digression on the “Hottentot Venus,” a freakishly buttocked creature who was given the Afrikaans name of Saartjie Baartman before sailing north and being displayed as a popular tourist attraction in Regency London and Restoration Paris, where she died in 1815 . . . after which her remains were put on display in a Paris museum for a century and a half. [2]

Moving on, we get tedious discussions of 18th century dietary theories, a lengthy digression on a priggish-sounding 19th century American periodical (Godey’s Lady’s Book, which you can find at the Internet Archive); the story of Charles Dana Gibson and his Gibson Girls; John Harvey Kellogg and his wacky sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan; and the rise of 20th century diet faddery and calorie-counting.

Inevitably this grab-bag assortment of sources and subjects sometimes leads Strings well out of her depth. She is under the impression that the Kellogg who ran the sanitarium also gave the world cornflakes. No no; that was his brother, W. K. Kellogg.

More hilariously, she quotes at length an 1836 essay on feminine face, figure and eating habits, “written by a woman named Leigh Hunt.”

Well now, that’s a good one. Clearly Strings has never heard of Leigh Hunt, who not incidentally was for decades a regular contributor to that selfsame Godey’s Lady’s Book. Leigh Hunt was one of the most prominent English men of letters of his day, quite as famous as his late friends Keats and Shelley, not to mention Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens. His light verse is embedded in popular culture even today.[3]

My guess is that our Southern California yoga teacher saw the name Leigh Hunt—a  plausible name for an up-and-coming 1990s Hollywood starlet—and naturally assumed he was a girl. You can’t blame someone for that.

Nor can I blame Sabrina Strings for what I suspect was her ur-motivation in coming up with this daffy dissertation. In recent years there’s been a lot of media emphasis, much of it indirect or accidental, on Fat Black Women. I won’t name the films, or the legal cases, or the obese politician in Georgia. But Strings cannily saw her opportunity, her opening, and made her move.

It was good timing. Pre-publication excerpts ran in a number of outlets in 2019, including the tony Lapham’s Quarterly (which, like the author and the New York University Press, didn’t know Leigh Hunt wasn’t a woman).

The best use for this amusing book is to make copies of the provocative cover (front and back—get a nice hardbound if you can, then return it) and then print up a bunch of them as dust jackets for blank sketchbooks. These will serve you as cherished gifts and stocking-stuffers for years to come.


[1] Pretty much at random, I grab this footnote paraphrase of Foucault as an example of the author’s peculiar idiom. I will award a fat red apple to anyone who can tell me what it means:

Foucault suggests that at any given historical moment, a specific meaning will attach to certain bodies. Frequently this meaning is produced within the halls of power—for example, within the disciplines of science, medicine or philosophy. However, its origins are often obscured. And, because they are attached to bodies, the meanings are easily naturalized. This is how bodies become “legible,” or understood in a particular way, within a given society. Foucault, Discipline and Punish. (Strings, p. 225)

[2] Incidentally it’s this steatopygous prodigy who supposedly appears on the cover of the book, although neither the author nor the publisher bother to tell you this. Hardly drawn from life, it’s a comical French print made in 1830, some 15 years after her death, and titled: “The Hottentot Venus in the Salon of the Duchess of Berry.” Scientific fascination with her body was mostly focused not on her buttocks but on her huge, distended genitals, which were afterwards preserved in a jar of formaldehyde.

[3] Leigh Hunt: “Stolen sweets are always sweeter/Stolen kisses much completer”? How’s about “Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)”? Or, surely you know: “Jenny kiss’d me when we met/Jumping from the chair she sat in”? That one’s about Mrs. Carlyle. If none of this is familiar, try Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.