THE BACK PAGES

It’s just so doggone enlightening

This collection of losers and nutters manages to touch on almost every folly of our times

MARK STEYN October 30 2006
THE BACK PAGES

It’s just so doggone enlightening

This collection of losers and nutters manages to touch on almost every folly of our times

MARK STEYN October 30 2006

It’s just so doggone enlightening

books

This collection of losers and nutters manages to touch on almost every folly of our times

MARK STEYN

Like most media outlets these days, the Reuters news agency has a column of short, quirky, amusing items, which it calls “Oddly Enough!” Oddly enough, Reuters’s idea of quirky and amusing comes with quite a high body count. If you were looking for a light chuckle amid the doom and gloom on April 21 last year, for example, here’s what the wags on the copy desk came up with:

“A Pakistani man accused of desecrating the Koran was shot dead Wednesday after being chased by an angry crowd.”

Laugh? I was doubled over clutching my sides. And so was he. On Jan. 5, the lads opted for:

“An Iranian who beheaded his two sons after they witnessed him murder a woman was sentenced to hang Tuesday by a Tehran court.” Just another goofy Persian head case, eh? And here’s a personal favourite from the Reuters “Oddly Enough!” files of Sept. 1,2004: “Three men were trampled to death in a rush to claim vouchers at the first IKEA furniture showroom in Saudi Arabia Wednesday.” Hey, at the Saudi IKEA it’s not just the furniture that’s in pieces! Upbeat and whimsical, just what the doctor ordered on a grim news day. For a while, the Wall StreetJournal’s James Taranto had some daily sport with a news agency whose idea of offbeat funny stories inclines toward beheadings, honour killings, lynch mobs, etc. But who’s to say he’s not just being culturally insensitive? Maybe mass fatal trampling is as near as you get to your morning smile in Saudi Arabia.

The broader point, one feels, is that in a certain sense the foot-of-page-37 item is the real story. What gives you a better grasp of

the realities of Europe today? The front-page reports on the G8 and the U.S.-EU summit? The in-depth profile of Jacques Chirac or Dominique de Villepin? Or the small spacefiller about a French police lieutenant promoted to captain despite spending 12 of the last 18 years on “paternity leave,” in the course of which he wrote three books about the Beatles.

As a summation of contemporary Europe that could hardly be improved, not least in the way the generosity of Continental “paternity” leave seems to be inversely proportional to their barren societies’ actual paternity rate. I found it, under the heading “Sgt. Pepper,” in John Robson’s new Top Five Book. If you listen to CFRA or read the Ottawa Citizen, you’ll know Mr. Robson ends the week with a countdown of five whimsical, quirky stories from around the world. Many of them involve animals (a Jack Russell terrier has his paintings hailed as the work of a new Jackson Pollock) or inept criminals (two Arkansas crooks rob a late-night shopping-channel host while he’s on the air, having failed to anticipate that his viewers would call 911 and provide live, detailed descriptions) or, indeed, the British, who in their contemporary incarnation seem to exist mainly to fill up empty space in the planet’s newspapers: “Two British men will try to

row the Atlantic naked with BBC cameras in the boat showing strategically blurred images,” reports Robson in a sentence that seems to encapsulate the strained eccentricity of latter-day England. In an item that manages to combine animals, crime and Brits all in one, the United Kingdom’s boys in blue announce that they’re having to import pooches from abroad because of a shortage of police dogs. “We’re finding,” remarks an officer, “that foreign dogs are often more motivated.” Or, as Robson observes, in Britain even the dogs have gone to the dogs.

I took The Top Five Book along with me on a little 45-minute puddle-jumper and found it so fascinating it got me through a transcontinental long-haul. I came for the dogs/crooks/ Brits shtick but stayed for.. .well, without wishing to make too much of it, it reads like a weird prose poem of Western decline, peopled by politically correct prigs and Hogarthian grotesques who between them touch on almost every folly of the age. There are plenty of examples of the peculiarly coercive regime of “tolerance”—British nursery schoolchildren forced to sing “Baa Baa, Rainbow Sheep”—and of what one might call the internal contradictions of identity-group politics: a German court rules that men are not entitled to subsidized toupées, even though women’s wigs are state-funded, because baldness among men is considered “normal.” So much for gender equality. There are weird examples of the curious effect of a

celebrified culture: an Oklahoma man is sentenced to 30 years for shooting with intent to kill but says he’s a big fan of basketball great Larry Bird and would rather serve 33 (Bird’s jersey number), which the judge grants him. The effects of a celebrified culture on celebrities are even goofier: after reading on innumerable websites the false rumour that he “collects meteorites,” novelist Douglas Coupland decides to start, er, collecting meteorites, because “I thought, like, wow, what a great thing to collect.” Truth may be stranger

than fiction, but the fiction about Coupland was way cooler than the truth.

To be sure, there are stories that seem to have no wider significance yet manage to surf on the Zeitgeist as effortlessly as Coupland: the Irish government decides to abolish the 1718 Adulteration of Coffee Act, which forbade the mixing of coffee and sheep manure. Presumably Starbucks was planning to offer it as this week’s special, for six bucks a venti macchiato. All human life is here, even if it’s not here yet: a woman in (natu-

rally) Britain complains when her son is served with an ASBO—one of the Blair government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Orders— on the grounds that he’s not due to be born for another three months. On the other hand, like most British youths, he’ll probably deserve one in another decade and a half and, given the incompetence and sloth of the bureaucracy, it seems easier to issue it with the birth certificate.

And here’s one that gave me a worse headache the more I thought about it. An Ottawa panhandler says he may have to abandon his prime panhandling real estate on a downtown street corner because he’s being shaken down by officials from the panhandlers’ union. But then we’re told that these guys are fakes from a phony panhandlers’ union, not the real panhandlers’ union. Did I read that right? There’s apparently a real panhandlers’ union which exists to protect workers’ rights? Er, hang on, non-workers’ rights. If the union-negotiated non-work contracts aren’t honoured, the members will presumably walk off the job and stand around on the sidewalk. No, wait, they’ll walk off the sidewalk... No, let’s try again. When you think about it, the fake panhandlers’ union, panhandling genuine panhandlers and doing nothing in return for the dues they raise, is surely truer to the spirit of the mandate.

As readers may have noticed, I’m partial in this space to the big-theme epic-canvas books. But with eerie precision John Robson’s collection of losers and nutters, freaks and misfits is as reliable a fever chart of the times as the thicker stuff with the footnotes. And, of course, as with Reuters’s “Oddly Enough!” column, it wouldn’t be a breezy quirky gag-fest without a few wacky Islamists. So an Afghan imam helpfully explains his faith’s attitude to the lyric muse: “Music is not banned in Islam, but to get enjoyment from music is banned.” In that case, why not keep the Princess Pats at home and just drop a ton of CanCon on the Hindu Kush? M