Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Stan Goodman and Curtis A. Weyant
IF I MAY
A. A. MILNE
* * * * *
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
NOT THAT IT MATTERS
Named by _Life_ in its issue of October 28, 1920, as one of the best
six current books.
"No better book for vacation reading." --_Review_
E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY
* * * * *
IF I MAY
A. A. MILNE
AUTHOR OF "NOT THAT IT MATTERS," ETC.
E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY
682 FIFTH AVENUE
BY E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY
All Rights Reserved
_First Edition_, October, 1921
_New Popular Edition_, 1925
Printed in the United States of America
* * * * *
These essays are reprinted, with such alterations and additions as
seemed proper, from _The Sphere_, _The Outlook_, _The Daily News_,
_The Sunday Express_ (London) and _Vanity Fair_ (New York).
A. A. M.
* * * * *
THE CASE FOR THE ARTIST
A LONDON GARDEN
THE GAME OF KINGS
FIXTURES AND FITTINGS
THE ROBINSON TRADITION
GETTING THINGS DONE
THE MATHEMATICAL MIND
GOING OUT TO DINNER
THE ETIQUETTE OF ESCAPE
THE ROAD TO KNOWLEDGE
A MAN OF PROPERTY
AN ORDNANCE MAP
THE LORD MAYOR
THE HOLIDAY PROBLEM
THE BURLINGTON ARCADE
THE RECORD LIE
THE HONOUR OF YOUR COUNTRY
A VILLAGE CELEBRATION
A TRAIN OF THOUGHT
A LOST MASTERPIECE
A HINT FOR NEXT CHRISTMAS
THE LARGEST CIRCULATION
THE WATSON TOUCH
SOME OLD COMPANIONS
A HAUNTED HOUSE
ROUND THE WORLD AND BACK
THE STATE OF THE THEATRE
THE FIRES OF AUTUMN
* * * * *
IF I MAY
* * * * *
IF I MAY
The Case for the Artist
By an "artist" I mean Shakespeare and Me and Bach and Myself and
Velasquez and Phidias, and even You if you have ever written four
lines on the sunset in somebody's album, or modelled a Noah's Ark for
your little boy in plasticine. Perhaps we have not quite reached the
heights where Shakespeare stands, but we are on his track. Shakespeare
can be representative of all of us, or Velasquez if you prefer him.
One of them shall be President of our United Artists' Federation. Let
us, then, consider what place in the scheme of things our federation
Probably we artists have all been a little modest about ourselves
lately. During the war we asked ourselves gloomily what use we were to
the State compared with the noble digger of coals, the much-to-be-
reverenced maker of boots, and the god-like grower of wheat. Looking
at the pictures in the illustrated papers of brawny, half-dressed men
pushing about blocks of red-hot iron, we have told ourselves that
these heroes were the pillars of society, and that we were just an
incidental decoration. It was a wonder that we were allowed to live.
And now in these days of strikes, when a single union of manual
workers can hold up the rest of the nation, it is a bitter refection
to us that, if we were to strike, the country would go on its way
quite happily, and nine-tenths of the population would not even know
that we had downed our pens and brushes.
If there is any artist who has been depressed by such thoughts as
these, let him take comfort. _We are all right._
I made the discovery that we were all right by studying the life of
the bee. All that I knew about bees until yesterday was derived from
that great naturalist, Dr. Isaac Watts. In common with every one who
has been a child I knew that the insect in question improved each
shining hour by something honey something something every something
flower. I had also heard that bees could not sting you if you held
your breath, a precaution which would make conversation by the
herbaceous border an affair altogether too spasmodic; and, finally,
that in any case the same bee could only sting you once--though,
apparently, there was no similar provision of Nature's that the same
person could not be stung twice.
Well, that was all that I knew about bees until yesterday. I used to
see them about the place from time to time, busy enough, no douht, but
really no busier than I was; and as they were not much interested in
me they had no reason to complain that I was not much interested in
them. But since yesterday, when I read a book which dealt fully, not
only with the public life of the bee, but with the most intimate
details of its private life, I have looked at them with a new interest
and a new sympathy. For there is no animal which does not get more out
of life than the pitiable insect which Dr. Watts holds up as an
example to us.
Hitherto, it may be, you have thought of the bee as an admirable and
industrious insect, member of a model community which worked day and
night to but one end--the well-being of the coming race. You knew
perhaps that it fertilized the flowers, but you also knew that the bee
didn't know; you were aware that, it any bee deliberately went about
trying to improve your delphiniums instead of gathering honey for the
State, it would be turned down promptly by the other workers. For
nothing is done in the hive without this one utilitarian purpose. Even
the drones take their place in the scheme of things; a minor place in
the stud; and when the next generation is assured, and the drones
cease to be useful and can now only revert to the ornamental, they are
ruthlessly cast out.
It comes, then, to this. The bee devotes its whole life to preparing
for the next generation. But what is the next generation going to do?
It is going to spend its whole life preparing for the third
generation... and so on for ever.
An admirable community, the moralists tell us. Poor moralists! To miss
so much of the joy of life; to deny oneself the pleasure (to mention
only one among many) of reclining lazily on one's back in a
snap-dragon, watching the little white clouds sail past upon a sea of
blue; to miss these things for no other reason than that the next
generation may also have an opportunity of missing them--is that
admirable? What do the bees think that they are doing? If they live a
life of toil and self-sacrifice merely in order that the next
generation may live a life of equal toil and self-sacrifice, what has
been gained? Ask the next bee you meet what it thinks it is doing in
this world, and the only answer it can give you is, "Keeping up the
supply of bees." Is that an admirable answer? How much more admirable
if it could reply that it was eschewing all pleasure and living the
life of a galley-slave in order that the next generation might have
leisure to paint the poppy a more glorious scarlet. But no. The next
generation is going at it just as hard for the same unproductive end;
it has no wish to leave anything behind it--a new colour, a new scent,
a new idea. It has one object only in this world--more bees. Could any
scheme of life be more sterile?
Having come to this conclusion about the bee, I took fresh courage. I
saw at once that it was the artist in Man which made him less
contemptible than the Bee. That god-like person the grower of wheat
assumed his proper level. Bread may be necessary to existence, but
what is the use of existence if you are merely going to employ it in
making bread? True, the farmer makes bread, not only for himself, but
for the miner; and the miner produces coal--not only for himself, but
for the farmer; and the farmer also Produces bread for the maker of
boots, who Produces boots, not only for himself, but for the farmer
and the miner. But you are still getting ting no further. It is the
Life of the Bee over again, with no other object in it but mere
existence. If this were all, there would be nothing to write on our
tombstones but "Born 1800; Died 1880. _He lived till then._"
But it is not all, because--and here I strike my breast
proudly--because of us artists. Not only can we write on Shakespeare's
tomb, "He wrote _Hamlet_" or "He was not for an age, but for all
time," but we can write on a contemporary baker's tomb, "He provided
bread for the man who wrote _Hamlet_," and on a contemporary
butcher's tomb, "He was not only for himself, but for Shakespeare."
We perceive, in fact, that the only matter upon which any worker,
other than the artist, can congratulate himself, whether he be
manual-worker, brain-worker, surgeon, judge, or politician, is that he
is helping to make the world tolerable for the artist. It is only the
artist who will leave anything behind him. He is the fighting-man, the
man who counts; the others are merely the Army Service Corps of
civilization. A world without its artists, a world of bees, would be
as futile and as meaningless a thing as an army composed entirely of
Possibly you put in a plea here for the explorer and the scientist.
The explorer perhaps may stand alone. His discovery of a peak in
Darien is something in itself, quite apart from the happy possibility
that Keats may be tempted to bring it into a sonnet. Yes, if a
Beef-Essence-Merchant has only provided sustenance for an Explorer he
has not lived in vain, however much the poets and the painters recoil
from his wares. But of the scientist I am less certain. I fancy that
his invention of the telephone (for instance) can only be counted to
his credit because it has brought the author into closer touch with
So we artists (yes, and explorers) may be of good faith. They may try
to pretend, these others, in their little times of stress, that we are
nothing--decorative, inessential; that it is they who make the world
go round. This will not upset us. We could not live without them;
true. But (a much more bitter thought) they would have no reason for
living at all, were it not for us.
A London Garden
I have always wanted a garden of my own. Other people's gardens are
all very well, but the visitor never sees them at their best. He comes
down in June, perhaps, and says something polite about the roses. "You
ought to have seen them last year," says his host disparagingly, and
the visitor represses with difficulty the retort, "You ought to have
asked me down to see them last year." Or, perhaps, he comes down in
August, and lingers for a moment beneath the fig-tree. "Poor show of
figs," says the host, "I don't know what's happened to them. Now we
had a record crop of raspberries. Never seen them so plentiful
before." And the visitor has to console himself with the thought of
the raspberries which he has never seen, and will probably miss again
next year. It is not very comforting.
Give me, therefore, a garden of my own. Let me grow my own flowers,
and watch over them from seedhood to senility. Then shall I miss
nothing of their glory, and when visitors come I can impress them with
my stories of the wonderful show of groundsel which we had last year.
For the moment I am contenting myself with groundsel. To judge by the
present state of the garden, the last owner must have prided himself
chiefly on his splendid show of canaries. Indeed, it would not
surprise me to hear that he referred to his garden as "the
back-yard." This would take the heart out of anything which was
trying to flower there, and it is only natural that, with the
exception of the three groundsel beds, the garden is now a wilderness.
Perhaps "wilderness" gives you a misleading impression of space, the
actual size of the pleasaunce being about two hollyhocks by one, but
it is the correct word to describe the air of neglect which hangs over
the place. However, I am going to alter that.
With a garden of this size, though, one has to be careful. One cannot
decide lightly upon a croquet-lawn here, an orchard there, and a
rockery in the corner; one has to go all out for the one particular
thing, whether it is the last hoop and the stick of a croquet-lawn, a
mulberry-tree, or an herbaceous border. Which do we want most--a fruit
garden, a flower garden, or a water garden? Sometimes I think fondly
of a water garden, with a few perennial gold-fish flashing swiftly
across it, and ourselves walking idly by the margin and pointing them
out to our visitors; and then I realize sadly that, by the time an
adequate margin has been provided for ourselves and our visitors,
there will be no room left for the gold-fish.
At the back of my garden I have a high brick wall. To whom the bricks
actually belong I cannot say, but at any rate I own the surface rights
on this side of it. One of my ideas is to treat it as the back cloth
of a stage, and paint a vista on it. A long avenue of immemorial elms,
leading up to a gardener's lodge at the top of the wall--I mean at the
end of the avenue--might create a pleasing impression. My workroom
leads out into the garden, and I have a feeling that, if the door of
this room were opened, and then hastily closed again on the plea that
I mustn't be disturbed, a visitor might obtain such a glimpse of the
avenue and the gardener's lodge as would convince him that I had come
into property. He might even make an offer for the estate, if he were
set upon a country house in the heart of London.
But you have probably guessed already the difficulty in the way of my
vista. The back wall extends into the gardens of the householders on
each side of me. They might refuse to co-operate with me; they might
insist on retaining the blank ugliness of theirs walls, or
endeavouring (as they endeavour now, I believe) to grow some
unenterprising creeper up them; with the result that my vista would
fail to create the necessary illusion when looked at from the side,
This would mean that our guests would have to remain in one position,
and that even in this position they would have to stand to
attention--a state of things which might mar their enjoyment of our
hospitality. Until, then, our neighbours give me a free hand with
their segments of the wall, the vista must remain a beautiful dream.
However, there are other possibilities. Since there is no room in the
garden for a watchdog and a garden, it might be a good idea to paint a
phosphorescent and terrifying watchdog on the wall. Perhaps a
watchlion would be even more terrifying--and, presumably, just as easy
to paint. Any burglar would be deterred if he came across a lion
suddenly in the back garden. One way or another, it should be possible
to have something a little more interesting than mere bricks at the
end of the estate.
And if the worst comes to the worst--if it is found that no flowers
(other than groundsel) will flourish in my garden, owing to lack of
soil or lack of sun--then the flowers must be painted on the walls.
This would have its advantages, for we should waste no time over the
early and uninteresting stages of the plant, but depict it at once in
its full glory. And we should keep our garden up to date. When
delphiniums went out of season, we should rub them out and give you
chrysanthemums; and if an untimely storm uprooted the chrysanthemums,
in an hour or two we should have a wonderful show of dahlias to take
their place. And we should still have the floor-space free for a
sundial, or--if you insist on exercise--for the last hoop and the
stick of a full-sized croquet-lawn.
The Game of Kings
I do not claim to be an authority on either the history or the
practice of chess, but, as the poet Gray observed when he saw his old
school from a long way off, it is sometimes an advantage not to know
too much of one's subject. The imagination can then be exercised more
effectively. So when I am playing Capablanca (or old Robinson) for the
championship of the home pastures, my thoughts are not fixed
exclusively upon the "mate" which is threatening; they wander off
into those enchanted lands of long ago, when flesh-and-blood knights
rode at stone-built castles, and thin-lipped bishops, all smiles and
side-long glances, plotted against the kings who ventured to oppose
them. This is the real fascination of chess.
You observe that I speak of castles, not of rooks. I do not know
whence came this custom of calling the most romantic piece on the
board by the name of a very ordinary bird, but I, at least, will not
be a party to it. I refuse to surrender the portcullis and the moat,
the bastion and the well-manned towers, which were the features of
every castle with which hitherto I have played, in order to take the
field with allies so unromantic as a brace of rooks. You may tell me
that "rook" is a corruption of this or that word, meaning something
which has never laid an egg in its life. It may be so, but in that
case you cannot blame me for continuing to call it the castle which
its shape proclaims it.
Knowing nothing of the origin of the game, I can tell myself stories
about it. That it was invented by a woman is obvious, for why else
should the queen be the most powerful piece of them all? She lived,
this woman, in a priest-ridden land, but she had no love for the
Church. Neither bland white bishop nor crooked-smiling black bishop
did she love; that is why she made them move sideways. Yet she could
not deny them their power. They were as powerful as the gallant young
knight who rode past her window singing to battle, where he swooped
upon the enemy impetuously from this side and that, heedless of the
obstacles in the way, or worked two of them into such a position that,
though one might escape, the other was doomed to bite the dust, Yet
the bishop, man of peace though he proclaimed himself, was as powerful
as he, but not so powerful as a baron in his well-fortified castle.
For sometimes there were places beyond the influence of the Church, if
one could reach them in safety; though when the Church hunted in
couples, the king's priest and the queen's priest out together, then
there was no certain refuge, and one must sally upon them bravely and
run the risk of being excommunicated.
No, she did not love the Church. Sometimes I think that she was
herself a queen, who had suffered at the hands of the bishops; and,
just as you or I put our enemies into a book, thereby gaining much
private satisfaction even though they do not recognize themselves, so
she made a game of her enemies and enjoyed her revenge in secret. But
if she were a queen, then she was a queen-mother, and the king was not
her husband but her little son. This would account for the perpetual
intrigues against him, and the fact that he was so powerless to aid
himself. Probably the enemy was too strong for him in the end, and he
and his mother were taken into captivity together. It was in prison
that she invented the royal game, the young king amused himself by
carving out the first rough pieces.
But was she a queen? Sometimes I think that I have the story wrong;
for what queen in those days would have assented to a proposition so
democratic as that a man-at-arms (a "pawn" in the language of the
unromantic) could rise by his own exertions to the dignity of Royalty
itself? But if she were a waiting-maid in love with the king's own
man-at-arms, then it would be natural that she should set no limit to
her ambitions for him. The man-at-arms crowned would be in keeping
with her most secret dreams.
These are the things of which I think when I push my king's
man-at-arms two leagues forward. A game of chess is a romance sport
when it is described in that dull official notation "P to K4 Kt to
KB3"; a story should be woven around it. One of these days, perhaps,
I shall tell the story of my latest defeat. Lewis Carroll had some
such intention when he began _Alice Through the Looking Glass_, but he
went at it half-heartedly. Besides, being a clergyman and writing as
he did for children, he was handicapped; he dared not introduce the
bishops. I shall have no such fears, and my story will be serious.
Consider for a moment the romance which underlies the most ordinary
game. You push out the king's pawn and your opponent does the same. It
is plain (is it not?) that these are the heralds, meeting at the
border-line between the two kingdoms--Ivoria and Ebonia, let us say.
There I have my first chapter: The history of the dispute, the
challenge by Ivoria, the acceptance of the challenge by Ebonia.
Chapter Two describes the sallying forth of the knights--"Kt to KB3,
Kt to QB3." In the next chapter the bishop gains the queen's ear and
suggests that he should take the field. He is no fighter, but he has
the knack of excommunicating. The queen, a young and beautiful widow,
with an infant son, consents ("B to QB4"), and set about removing
her child to a place of safety. She invokes the aid of Roqueblanc, an
independent chieftain, who, spurred on by love for her, throws all his
forces on to her side, offering at the same time his well-guarded
fastness as a sanctuary for her boy. ("Castles.") Then the queen
musters all her own troops and leads them into battle by the side of
the Baron Roqueblanc....
But I must not tell you the whole story now. You can imagine for
yourself some of the more exciting things which happen. You can
picture, for instance, that vivid chapter in which the young king, at
a moment when his very life is threatened by an Ebonian baron, is
saved by the self-sacrifices of Roqueblanc, who hurls himself in front
of the royal youth's person and himself falls a victim, to be avenged
immediately by a watchful man-at-arms. You can follow, if you will,
the further adventures of that man-at-arms, up to that last chapter
when he marries the still beautiful queen, and henceforward acts in
her name, taking upon himself a power similar to her own. In fact, you
can write the book yourself. But if you do not care to do this, let me
beg you at least to bring a little imagination to the next game which
you play. Then whether you win or (as is more likely) you lose, you
will at least be worthy of the Game of Kings.
Fixtures and Fittings
There was once a young man who decided to be a poodle-clipper. He felt
that he had a natural bent for it, and he had been told that a
fashionable poodle-clipper could charge his own price for his
services. But his father urged him to seek another profession. "It is
an uncertain life, poodle-clipping," he said, "To begin with, very
few people keep poodles at all. Of these few, only a small proportion
wants its poodles clipped. And, of this small proportion, a still
smaller proportion is likely to want its poodles clipped by _you_."
So the young man decided to be a hair-dresser instead.
I thought of this story the other day when I was bargaining with a
house-agent about "fixtures," and I decided that no son of mine
should become a curtain-pole manufacturer. I suppose that the price of
a curtain-rod (pole or perch) is only a few shillings, and, once made,
it remains in a house for ever. Tenants come and go, new landlords buy
and sell, but the old brass rod stays firm at the top of the window,
supporting curtain after curtain. How many new sets are made in a
year? No more, it would seem, than the number of new houses built. Far
better, then to manufacture an individual possession like a
tooth-brush, which has the additional advantage of wearing out every
But from the consumer's point of view, a curtain-rod is a pleasant
thing. He has the satisfaction of feeling that, having once bought it,
he has bought it for the rest of his life. He may change his house and
with it his Fixtures, but there is no loss on the brass part of the
transaction, however much there may be on the bricks and mortar. What
he pays out with one hand, he takes in with the other. Nor is his
property subject to the ordinary mischances of life. There was an
historic character who "lost the big drum," but he would become even
more historic who had lost a curtain-rod, and neither parlour-maid nor
cat is ever likely to wear a guilty conscience over the breaking of
I have not yet discovered, in spite of my recent familiarity with
house-agents, the difference between a fixture and a fitting. It is
possible that neither word has any virtue without the other, as is the
case with "spick" and "span." One has to be both; however dapper,
one would never be described as a span gentleman. In the same way it
may be that a curtain-rod or an electric light is never just a fixture
or a fitting, but always "included in the fixtures and fittings."
Then there is a distinction, apparently, between a "landlord's
fixture" and a "tenant's fixture," which is rather subtle. A
fire-dog is a landlord's fixture; so is a door-plate. If you buy a
house you get the fire-dogs and the door-plates thrown in, which seems
unnecessarily generous. I can understand the landlord deciding to
throw in the walls and the roof, because he couldn't do much with them
if you refused to take them, but it is a mystery why he should include
a door-plate, which can easily be removed and sold to somebody else.
And if a door-plate, why not a curtain-rod? A curtain-rod is a
necessity to the incoming tenant; a door-plate is merely a luxury for
the grubby-fingered to help them to keep the paint clean. One might
be expected to bring one's own door-plate with one, according to the
size of one's hand.
For the whole idea of a fixture or fitting can only be that it is
something about which there can be no individual taste. We furnish a
house according to our own private fancy; the "fixtures" are the
furnishings in regard to which we are prepared to accept the general
fancy. The other man's curtain-rod, though easily detachable and able
to fit a hundred other windows, is a fixture; his carpet-as-planned
(to use the delightful language of the house-agent), though securely
nailed down and the wrong size for any other room but this, is not a
fixture. Upon some such reasoning the first authorized schedule of
fixtures and fittings must have been made out.
It seems a pity that it has not been extended. There are other things
than curtain-rods and electric-light bulbs which might be left behind
in the old house and picked up again in the new. The silver
cigarette-box, which we have all had as a birthday or wedding present,
might safely be handed over to the incoming tenant, in the certainty
that another just like it will be waiting for us in our next house.
True, it will have different initials on it, but that will only make
it the more interesting, our own having become fatiguing to us by this
time. Possibly this sort of thing has already been done in an
unofficial way among neighbors. By mutual agreement they leave their
aspidistras and their "Maiden's Prayer" behind them. It saves
trouble and expense in the moving, which is an important thing in
these days, and there would always be the hope that the next
aspidistra might be on the eve of flowering or laying eggs, or
whatever it is that its owner expects from it.
The man in front of the fire was telling us a story about his wife and
a bottle of claret. He had taken her to the best restaurant in Paris
and had introduced her to a bottle of the famous Chateau Whatsitsname,
1320 (or thereabouts), a wine absolutely priceless--although the
management, with its customary courtesy, had allowed him to pay a
certain amount for it. Not realizing that it was actually the famous
Whatsitsname, she had drunk it in the ordinary way, neither holding it
up to the light and saying, "Ah, there's a wine!" nor rolling it
round the palate before swallowing. On the next day they went to a
commonplace restaurant and drank a local and contemporary vintage at
five francs the bottle, of similar colour but very different
temperament. When she had finished her glass, she said hesitatingly,
"Of course, I don't know anything about wine, and I dare say I'm
quite wrong, but I can't help feeling that the claret we had last
night was better than this."
The man in front of the fire was rather amused by this, as were most
of his audience. For myself, I felt that the lady demanded my
admiration rather than my amusement. Without the assistance of the
labels, many of us might have decided that it was the five-franc
vintage which was the better wine. She didn't. Indeed, I am inclined
to read more into the story than is perhaps there; I believe that she
had misunderstood her husband, and had thought that the second bottle
was the famous, aged, and priceless Chateau Whatsitsname, and that, in
spite of this, she gave it as her opinion that the first wine, cheap
and modern though it might be, was the better. Hats off, then, to a
brave woman! How many of us would have her courage and her honesty?
But perhaps you who read this are an expert on wine. If so, you are
lucky. I am an expert on nothing--nothing, anyhow, that matters. I
envy all you experts tremendously. When I see a cigar-expert listening
to his cigar before putting it in his mouth I wish that I were as
great a man as he. Privately sometimes I have listened to a cigar, but
it has told me nothing. The only way I can tell whether it is good or
bad is by smoking it. Even then I could not tell you (without the
assistance of the band) whether it was a Sancho Panza or a Guoco
Piano. I could only tell you whether I liked it or not, a question of
no importance whatever.
Lately I have been trying to become a furniture-expert, but it is a
disheartening business. I have a book called Chats on Old Furniture--a
terrible title to have to ask for in a shop, but I asked boldly.
Perhaps the word "chat" does not make other people feel as unhappy
as it makes me. But even after reading this book I am not really an
expert. I know now that it is no good listening to a Chippendale chair
to see if it is really Chippendale; one must stroke it in order to
find out whether it is a "genuine antique" or only a modern
reproduction; but it is obvious that years of stroking would be
necessary before an article of furniture would be properly responsive.
Is it worth while wasting these years of one's life? Indeed, is it
worth while (I ask nervously) bothering whether a chair or a table is
antique or modern so long as it is both useful and beautiful?
Well, let me tell you what happened to us yesterday. We found a
dresser which appealed to us considerably, and we stood in front of
it, looking at it. We decided that except for a little curley-wiggle
at the top it was the jolliest dresser we had seen, "That's a fine
old dresser," said the shopman, coming up at that moment, and he
smacked it encouragingly. "A really fine old dresser, that." We
agreed. "Except for those curley-wiggles," I added, pointing to them
with my umbrella. "If we could take those off." He looked at me
reproachfully. "You wouldn't take those off----" he said. "Why,
that's what tells you that it's a Welsh dresser of 1720." We didn't
buy that dresser. We decided that the size or the price was all wrong.
But I wonder now, supposing we had bought it, whether we should have
had the pluck to remove the curley-wiggles (and let people mistake it
for an English dresser of 1920) in order that, so abbreviated, it
might have been more beautiful.
For furniture is not beautiful merely because it is old. It is absurd
to suppose that everything made in 1720--or 1620 or 1520--was made
beautifully, as it would be absurd to say that everything made in 1920
was beautiful. No doubt there will always be people who will regard
the passing of time as sufficient justification for any article of
furniture; I could wish that they were equally tolerant among the arts
as among the crafts, so that in 2120 this very article which I write
now could be referred to with awe as a genuine 1920; but all that the
passage of time can really do for your dresser is to give a more
beautiful surface and tone to the wood. This, surely, is a matter
which you can judge for yourself without being an expert. If your
dresser looks old you have got from it all that age can give you; if
it looks beautiful you have got from it all that a craftsman of any
period can give you; why worry, then, as to whether or not it is a
"genuine antique"? The expert may tell you that it is a fake, but
the fact that he has suddenly said so has not made your dining-room
less beautiful. Or if it is less beautiful, it is only because an
"expert" is now in it. Hurry him out.
The Robinson Tradition
Having read lately an appreciation of that almost forgotten author
Marryat, and having seen in the shilling box of a second-hand
bookseller a few days afterward a copy of _Masterman Ready_, I went in
and bought the same. I had read it as a child, and remembered vaguely
that it combined desert-island adventure with a high moral tone; jam
and powder in the usual proportions. Reading it again, I found that
the powder was even more thickly spread than I had expected; hardly a
page but carried with it a valuable lesson for the young; yet this
particular jam (guava and cocoanut) has such an irresistible
attraction for me that I swallowed it all without a struggle, and was
left with a renewed craving for more and yet more desert-island
stories. Having, unfortunately, no others at hand, the only
satisfaction I can give myself is to write about them.
I would say first that, even if an author is writing for children (as
was Marryat), and even if morality can best be implanted in the young
mind with a watering of fiction, yet a desert-island story is the last
story which should be used for this purpose. For a desert-island is a
child's escape from real life and its many lessons. Ask yourself why
you longed for a desert-island when you were young, and you will find
the answer to be that you did what you liked there, ate what you
liked, and carried through your own adventures. It is the "Family"
which spoils _The Swiss Family Robinson_, just as it is the Seagrave
family which nearly wrecks _Masterman Ready_. What is the good of
imagining yourself (as every boy does) "Alone in the Pacific" if you
are not going to be alone? Well, perhaps we do not wish to be quite
alone; but certainly to have more than two on an island is to
overcrowd it, and our companion must be of a like age and disposition.
For this reason parents spoil any island for a healthy-minded boy. He
may love his father and mother as fondly as even they could wish, but
he does not want to take them bathing in the lagoon with him--still
less to have them on the shore, telling him that there are too many
sharks this morning and that it is quite time he came out. Nor for
that matter do parents want to be bothered with children on a South
Sea holiday. In _Masterman Ready_ there is a horrid little boy called
Tommy, aged six, who is always letting the musket off accidentally, or
getting bitten by a turtle, or taking more than his share of the
cocoanut milk. As a grown-up I wondered why his father did not give
him to the first savage who came by, and so allow himself a chance of
enjoying his island in peace; but at Tommy's age I should have
resented just as strongly a father who, even on a desert-island, could
not bear to see his boy making a fool of himself with turtle and
I am not saying that a boy would really be happy for long, whether on
a desert-island or elsewhere, without his father and mother. Indeed it
is doubtful if he could survive, happily or unhappily. Possibly
William Seagrave could have managed it. William was only twelve, but
he talked like this: "I agree with you, Ready. Indeed I have been
thinking the same thing for many days past.... I wish the savages
would come on again, for the sooner they come the sooner the affair
will be decided." A boy who can talk like this at twelve is capable
of finding the bread-fruit tree for himself. But William is an
exception. I claim no such independence for the ordinary boy; I only
say that the ordinary boy, however dependent on his parents, does like
to pretend that he is capable of doing without them, wherefore he
gives them no leading part in the imaginary adventures which he
pursues so ardently. If they are there at all, it is only that he may
come back to them in the last chapter and tell them all about it...
and be suitably admired.
_Masterman Ready_ seems to me, then, to be the work of a father, not
of an understanding writer for boys. Marryat wrote it for his own
children, towards whom he had responsibilities; not for other people's
children, for whom he would only be concerned to provide
entertainment. But even if the book was meant for no wider circle than
the home, one would still feel that the moral teaching was overdone.
It should be possible to be edifying without losing one's sense of
humour. When Juno, the black servant, was struck by lightning and not
quite killed, she "appeared to be very sensible of the wonderful
preservation which she had had. She had always been attentive whenever
the Bible was read, but now she did not appear to think that the
morning and evening services were sufficient to express her
gratitude." Even a child would feel that Juno really need not have
been struck by lightning at all; even a child might wonder how many
services, on this scale of gratitude, were adequate for the rest of
the party whom the lightning had completely missed. And it was perhaps
a little self-centred of Ready to thank God for her recovery on the
grounds that she could "ill be spared" by a family rather
short-handed in the rainy season.
However, the story is the thing. As long as a desert-island book
contains certain ingredients, I do not mind if other superfluous
matter creeps in. Our demands--we of the elect who adore
desert-islands--are simple. The castaways must build themselves a hut
with the aid of a bag of nails saved from the wreck; they must catch
turtles by turning them over on their backs; they must find the
bread-fruit tree and have adventures with sharks. Twice they must be
visited by savages. On the first occasion they are taken by surprise,
but--the savages being equally surprised--no great harm is done. Then
the Hero says, "They will return when the wind is favourable," and
he arranges his defences, not forgetting to lay in a large stock of
water. The savages return in force, and then--this is most
important--at the most thirsty moment of the siege it is discovered
that the water is all gone! Generally a stray arrow has pierced the
water-butt, but in _Masterman Ready_ the insufferable Tommy has played
the fool with it. (He would.) This is the Hero's great opportunity. He
ventures to the spring to get more water, and returns with
it--wounded. Barely have the castaways wetted their lips with the
precious fluid when the attack breaks out with redoubled fury. It
seems now that all is lost... when, lo! a shell bursts into the middle
of the attacking hordes. (Never into the middle of the defenders. That
would be silly.) "Look," the Hero cries, "a vessel off-shore with
its main braces set and a jib-sail flying"--or whatever it may be.
And they return to London.
This is the story which we want, and we cannot have too many of them.
Should you ever see any of us with our noses over the shilling box and
an eager light in our eyes, you may be sure that we are on the track
of another one.
Getting Things Done
In the castle of which I am honorary baron we are in the middle of an
orgy of "getting things done." It must always be so, I suppose, when
one moves into a new house. After the last furniture van has departed,
and the painters' bill has been receipted, one feels that one can now
settle down to enjoy one's new surroundings. But no. The discoveries
begin. This door wants a new lock on it, that fireplace wants a brick
taken out, the garden is in need of something else, somebody ought to
inspect the cistern. What about the drains? There are a hundred things
to be "done."
I have a method in these matters. When I observe that something wants
doing, I say casually to the baroness, "We ought to do something
about that fireplace," or whatever it is. I say it with the air of a
man who knows exactly what to do, and would do it himself if he were
not so infernally busy. The correct answer to this is, "Yes, I'll go
and see about it to-day." Sometimes the baroness tries to put it on
to me by saying, "We ought to do something about the cistern," but
she has not quite got the casual tone necessary, and I have no
difficulty in replying (with the air of a man who, etc.), "Yes, we
ought." The proper answer to this is, "Very well, then. I'll go and
see about it." In either case, as you will agree, action on the part
of the baroness should follow.
Unfortunately it doesn't. She, it appears, is a partner in my
weakness. We neither of us know how to get things done. It is a
knowledge which one can never acquire. Either you are born with an
instinct for the man round the corner who tests cisterns, or you are
born without it, in which case you never, never find him. There are
men with the instinct so highly developed that they can tell you at a
moment's notice the name and address, not merely of a man who will
test your cistern for you, but of the one man in your neighbourhood
who will test it most efficiently and most cheaply. If your canary
moulted unduly, and you said to your wife, "We must do something
about Ambrose," they could tell you at once of the best canary-mender
to approach. These are the men I admire. But there are weaklings (of
both sexes, unfortunately) who would not even know whether a
greengrocer or a veterinary surgeon was the man to send for, and who
are entirely vague as to whether a cistern is tested for water or for
The press speaks of this or that politician sometimes as the
"Minister who gets things done." I have always felt that, given an
adequate permanent staff, I might go down to fame as the householder
who got things done. As you see, my staff lets me down. I am quite
capable of sitting in my office and saying to an under-secretary, "We
must do something about this shell business." This, in fact, is just
my line. I am quite capable of saying firmly, "I must have ten
million big guns by August." And if the undersecretary only made the
correct reply, "Very well, sir, I'll see about it," my photograph
would appear in the papers as that of "the man who got the guns."
But when your under-secretary refuses to carry on, where are you?
What I want, and what, I imagine, most people who have moved into a
new house want, is an intermediary to get things done for us. I
suggest this as a profession to any demobilized soldier looking for
work. He should walk about London, making a note of the houses which
have just been sold or let, and as soon as the new residents have
taken possession, he should send round his card. "Tell me what is
worrying you," he would say, "and I will see that something is done
about it." He might charge a couple of guineas as his fee. Perhaps it
would be better if he said, "Let me tell you what is likely to worry
you"--if, that is to say, his business was to go round your house
directly you got into it, to make a list of the jobs that wanted
doing, and then, armed with your authority, to go off and get them
done. Many people would gladly pay him two guineas for such excellent
services, and he could probably pick up a trifle more as commission
from the men to whom he gave the work. It would be worth trying
But, of course, such a man would have to have a vast knowledge of
affairs. He would have to know, for instance, how one buys string. In
the ordinary way one doesn't buy string; it comes to you, and you take
it off and send it back again. But the occasion may arise when you
want lots and lots of it. Then it is necessary to look for a string
shop. A friend of mine spent the whole of one afternoon trying to buy
a ball of string. He wandered from one ironmonger to the other (he had
a fixed idea that an ironmonger was the man), and finally, in despair,
went into a large furnishing shop, noted for its "artistic suites."
He was very humble by this time, and his petition that they should
sell him some string because he was an old customer of theirs was
unfortunately worded. As far as I know he is still stringless, just as
I am still waiting for somebody to do something about the cistern.
The shops are putting on their Christmas dress. The cotton-wool, that
time-hallowed substitute for snow, is creeping into the plate-glass
windows; the pink lace collars are encircling again the cakes; and the
"charming wedding or birthday present" of a week ago renews its
youth as a "suitable Yuletide gift." Everything calls to us to get
our Christmas shopping done early this year, but, as usual, we shall
put it off until the latest possible day, and in that last mad rush we
shall get Aunt Emily the wrong pair of mittens and overlook poor Uncle
Before I begin my own shopping I am waiting for an announcement in the
papers. All that my paper has told me is that the Christmas toy
bazaars of the big stores are now open. I have not yet seen that list
and description of the new games of the season for which I wait so
eagerly. It is possible that this year will produce the
masterpiece--the game which possesses in the highest degree all the
qualities of the ideal Christmas game. The unfortunate thing is that,
even if such a game were to appear in this year's catalogue, we should
have lost it by next year; for the National Sporting Club (or whoever
arranges these things) has always been convinced that "novelty" is
the one quality required at Christmas, the hall-mark of excellence
which no Christmas shopper can resist. If a game is novel, it is
enough. To the manager of a toy department the continued vogue of
cricket must be very bewildering.
Let us consider the ideal Christmas game. In the first place, it must
be a round game; that is to say, at least six people must be able to
play it simultaneously. No game for two only is permissible at
Christmas--unless, of course, it be under the mistletoe. Secondly, it
must be a game into which skill does not enter, or, if it does, it
must be a skill which is as likely to be shown by a child of eight or
an old gentleman of eighty as by a 'Varsity blue. Such skill, for
instance, as manifests itself at Tiddleywinks, that noble game. Yet,
even so, Tiddleywinks is too skilful a pursuit. One cannot say what it
is that makes a good Tiddleywinker, whether eye or wrist or supple
finger-work, but it is obvious that one who is "winking" badly must
be depressed by the thought that he is appearing stupid and clumsy to
his neighbours, and that this feeling is not conducive to that
happiness which his many Christmas cards have called down upon him.
It is better, therefore, that the element of skill should be absent.
Let it be a game of luck only; and, since it is impossible to play a
Christmas game for money, you will not be depressed if you lose.
The third and last essential of the ideal game is that it must provoke
laughter. You cannot laugh at Tiddleywinks, nor at Ludo (as I hear,
but I have never yet discovered what Ludo is), nor at Happy Families.
But the ideal game is provocative of that best kind of laughter--
laughter at the undeserved misfortunes of others, seasoned by the
knowledge that at any moment a similar misfortune may happen to
Just before the war I came across the ideal game. I forget what it was
called, unless it was some such name as "The Prince's Quest." Six
princes, suitably coloured, set out to win the hand of the beautiful
princess. They started at one end of a long and winding road, and she
waited for the first arrival at the other end. The road, which passed
through the most enthralling scenery, was numbered by milestones--"1"
to "200". Suppose you were the Red Prince, you shook a die (I mean the
half of two dice), and if a four turned up, you advanced to the fourth
milestone. And so on, in succession. So far it doesn't sound very
exciting. Rut you are forgetting the scenery. Perhaps at the twelfth
milestone there awaited you the shoes of swiftness, which carried you
in one bound to the twentieth milestone; thus by throwing a three at
the ninth, you advanced eleven miles, whereas if you had thrown a four
you would only have advanced four miles. On arriving at other lucky
milestones you received a cloak of darkness, which took you past
various obstacles which were holding the others up, or perhaps were
introduced to a potent dwarf, who showed you a short cut forbidden to
your rivals. One way and another you pushed ahead of the other
And then the inevitable happened. You arrived at the eighty-fourth
milestone (or whatever it was) and you found a wicked enchanter
waiting for you, who cast upon you a backward spell, as a result of
which you had to travel backwards for the next three turns. Undaunted
by this reverse, you returned bravely to it, and perhaps came upon the
eighty-fourth milestone again. But even so you did not despair, for
there was always hope. The Blue Prince, who is now leading, approaches
the ninety-sixth milestone. He is, indeed, at the ninety-fifth. A
breathless moment as he shakes the die. Will he? He does. He throws a
one, reaches the ninety-sixth milestone, topples headlong into the
underground river, and is swept back to the starting-point again.
A great game. But our edition of it went to some hospital during the
war, and I fear now that I shall never play it again. Yet I scan the
papers eagerly, hoping for some announcement of it. Not this actual
game, of course, but some version of it; some "Christmas novelty,"
in which, perhaps, the princes are called knights, but the laughter
remains the same.
The Mathematical Mind
My daily paper just now is full of mathematical difficulties,
submitted by its readers for the amusement of one of its staff. Every
morning he appeals to us for assistance in solving tricky little
problems about pints of water and herrings and rectangular fields. The
magic number "9" has a great fascination for him. It is terrifying
to think that if you multiply any row of figures by 9 the sum of the
figures thus obtained is divisible by 9. It is uncanny to hear that if
a clock takes six seconds to strike six it takes as much as thirteen
seconds and a fifth to strike twelve.
As a relief from searching for news in a press devoid of news, the
study of these problems is welcome enough, and to the unmathematical
mind, no doubt, the solutions appear to be something miraculous. But
to the mathematical mind a thing more miraculous is the awe with which
the unmathematical regard the simplest manipulation of figures. Most
of my life at school was spent in such pursuits that I feel bound to
claim the mathematical mind to some extent, with the result that I can
look down wonderingly upon these deeps of ignorance yawning daily in
the papers--much, I dare say, as the senior wrangler looks down upon
me. Figures may puzzle me occasionally, but at least they never cause
me surprise or alarm.
Naturally, then, I am jealous for the mathematical mind. If a man who
makes a false quantity, or attributes Lycidas to Keats, is generally
admitted to be uncultured, I resent it very much that no stigma
attaches to the gentleman who cannot do short division. I remember
once at school having to do a piece of Latin prose about the Black
Hole of Calcutta. It was a moving story as told in our prose book, and
I had spent an interesting hour turning into fairly correct and wholly
uninspired Latin--the sort of Latin I suppose which a small uneducated
Roman child (who had heard the news) would have written to a
school-boy friend. The size of the Black Hole was given as "twenty
foot square." I had no idea how to render this idiomatically, but I
knew that a room 20 ft. square contained 400 square feet. Also I knew
the Latin for one square foot. But you will not be surprised to hear
that my form master, a man of culture and education, leapt upon me.
"Quadringenti," he snapped, "is 400, not 20."
"Quite so," I agreed. "The room had 400 square feet."
"Read it again. It says 20 square feet."
"No, no, 20 feet square."
He glared at me in indignation. "What's the difference?" he said.
I sighed and began to explain. I went on explaining. If there had not
been other things to do than teaching cultured and educated
schoolmasters, I might be explaining still.
Yes, I resented this; and I resent now the matter-of-fact way in which
we accept the ignorance of mathematics shown by our present
teachers--the press. At every election in which there are only two
candidates a dozen papers discover with amazement this astounding
coincidence in the figures: that the decrease in, say, the Liberal
vote subtracted from the increase in the Conservative vote is exactly
equal to the increase in the poll. If there should happen to be three
candidates for a seat, the coincidences discovered are yet more
numerous and astonishing. Last Christmas a paper let itself go still
further, and dived into the economics of the plum pudding. A plum
pudding contains raisins, flour, and sugar. Raisins had gone up 2d. a
pound, or whatever it was, flour 6d., and sugar 1d. Hence the pudding
now would cost 9d. a pound more!
Consider, too, the extraordinary antics of the press over the methods
of scoring in the cricket championship. Wonderful new suggestions are
made which, if followed, could only have the effect of bringing the
teams out in exactly the same order as before. The simplest of simple
problems in algebra would have shown them this, but they feared to mix
themselves up with such unknown powers of darkness. The Theory of
Probability, again, leaves the press entirely cold, so that it is
ready to father any childish "system" for Monte Carlo. And nine men
out of ten really believe that, if you toss a penny five times in the
air and it comes down heads each time, it is more likely to come down
tails than heads next time.
Yet papers and people who think like this are considered quite capable
of dealing with the extraordinarily complicated figures of national
finance. They may boom or condemn insurance bills and fiscal policies,
and we listen to them reverently. As long as they know what Mr.
Gladstone said in '74, it doesn't seem to matter at all what Mr.
Todhunter said in his "Arithmetic for Beginners."
Going Out to Dinner
If you are one of those lucky people whose motor is not numbered (as
mine is) 19 or 11 or 22, it does not really matter where your host for
the evening prefers to live; Bayswater or Battersea or Blackheath--it
is all the same to your chauffeur. But for those of us who have to
fight for bus or train or taxicab, it is different. We have to say to
ourselves, "Is it worth it?" A man who lives in Chelsea (for
instance) demands more from an invitation to Hampstead than from an
invitation to Kensington. If such a man were interested in people
rather than in food, he might feel that one actor-manager and a rural
dean among his fellow-guests would be sufficient attraction in a
Kensington house, but that at least two archbishops and a
revue-producer would have to be forthcoming at Hampstead before the
journey on a wet night would be justified. On the other hand, if he
were a vulgar man who preferred food to people, he would divide London
up into whisky, burgundy, and champagne areas according to their
accessibility from his own house; and on receiving an invitation to a
house in the outer or champagne area (as it might be at Dulwich), he
would try to discover, either by inquiry among his friends or by
employing a private detective, whether this house fulfilled the
necessary condition. If not, of course, then he would write a polite
note to say that he would be in the country, or confined to his bed
with gout, on the day in question.
I am as fond of going out to dinner as anyone else is, but there is a
moment, just before I begin to array myself for it, when I wish that
it were on some other evening. If the telephone bell rings, I say,
"Thank Heavens, Mrs. Parkinson-Jones has died suddenly. I mean, how
sad," and, looking as solemn as I can, I pick up the receiver.
"Is that the Excelsior Laundry?" says a voice. "You only sent back
half a pair of socks this week."
I replace the receiver and go reluctantly upstairs to dress. There is
no help for it. As I dress, I wonder who my partner at the table will
be, and if at this moment she is feeling as gloomy about the prospects
as I am. How much better if we had both dined comfortably at home. I
remember some years ago taking in a Dowager Countess. Don't think that
I am priding myself on this; I realize as well as you do that a
mistake of some sort was made. Probably my hostess took me for
somebody else--Sir Thomas Lipton, it may have been. Anyway the Dowager
Countess and I led the way downstairs to the dining-room, and all the
other guests murmured to themselves, "Who on earth is that?" and
told each other that no doubt I was one of the Serbian Princes who had
recently arrived in the country. I forgot what the Countess and I
talked about; probably yachts, or tea; but I was not paying much
attention to our conversation. I had other things to think about.
For the Dowager Countess (wisely, I think) was dieting herself. She
went through the evening on a glass of water and two biscuits. Each
new dish on its way round the table was brought first to her; she
waved it away, and it came to me. There was nothing to be done. I had
to open it.
My partciular memory is of a quail-pie. Quails may be all right for
Moses in the desert, but, if they are served in the form of pie at
dinner, they should be distributed at a side-table, not handed round
from guest to guest. The Countess having shuddered at it and resumed
her biscuit, it was left to me to make the opening excavation. The
difficulty was to know where each quail began and ended; the job
really wanted a professional quail-finder, who might have indicated
the point on the surface of the crust at which it would be most
hopeful to dig for quails.
As it was, I had to dig at random, and, being unlucky, I plunged the
knife straight into the middle of a bird. It was impossible, of
course, to withdraw the quail through the slit I had thus made in the
pastry, nor could I get my knife out (with a bird sticking on the end
of it) in order to make a second slit at a suitable angle. I tried to
shake the quail off inside the pie, but it was fixed too firmly. I
tried pulling it off against the inside of the crust, but it became
obvious that if I persisted in this, the whole roof would come off.
The footman, with great presence of mind, realized my difficulty and
offered me a second knife. Unfortunately, I misjudged the width of
quails, and plunging this second knife into the pie a little farther
on, I landed into the middle of another quail no less retentive of
cutlery than the first. The dish now began to look more like a game
than a pie, and, waving away a third knife, I said (quite truly by
this time) that I didn't like quails, and that on second thoughts I
would ask the Dowager Countess to lend me a biscuit.
Fortunately, dinner is not all quail-pie. But even in the case of some
more amenable dish, the first-comer is in a position of great
responsibility. Casting a hasty eye round the company, he has to count
the number of diners, estimate the size of the dish, divide the one by
the other, and take a helping of the appropriate size, knowing that
the fashion which he inaugurates will be faithfully followed. How much
less exacting is the position of the more lowly-placed man; my own,
for instance, on ordinary occasions. There may be two quails and an
egg-cup left when the footman reaches me, or even only the egg-cup,
but at least I have nobody but myself to consider.
But let us get away from food for the body, and consider food for the
mind. I refer to that intellectual conversation which it is the
business of the guests at a dinner-party to contribute. Not "What
shall we eat?" but "What shall be talk about?" is the question
which is really disturbing us as we tug definitely at our necktie and
give a last look at ourselves in the glass before following the
"Will you take in Miss Montmorency?" says our hostess.
We bow to Miss Montmorency hopefully.
"Er--jolly day it's been, hasn't it?"
No, really, we can't say anything about the weather. We must be
"Er--have you been to any theatres lately?"
No, no, everybody says that. Well, then, what can we say? Let us try
"How do you do. Er--I see by the paper this evening that the
Bolsheviks have captured Omsk."
"Omsk." Or was it Tomsk? Fortunately it does not matter, for Miss
Montmorency is not the least interested.
"Oh!" she says.
I hate people who say "Oh!" It means that you have to begin all over
"I've been playing golfsk--I mean golf--this afternoon," we try.
"Do you play at all?"
Then it is no good telling her what our handicap is.
"No doubt your prefer tennis," we hazard.
"I mean bridge."
"I don't play any game," she answers.
Then the sooner she goes away and talks to somebody else the better.
"Ah, I expect you're more interested in the theatre?"
"I hardly ever go to the theatre."
"Well, of course, a good book by the fireside--"
"I never read," she says.
Dash the woman, what does she do? But before we can ask her, she lets
us into the great secret.
"I like talking," she says.
Good Heavens! What else have we been trying to do all this time?
However, it is only the very young girl at her first dinner-party whom
it is difficult to entertain. At her second dinner-party, and
thereafter, she knows the whole art of being amusing. All she has to
do is to listen; all we men have to do is to tell her about ourselves.
Indeed, sometimes I think that it is just as well to begin at once.
Let us be quite frank about it, and get to work as soon as we are
"How do you do. Lovely day it has been, hasn't it? It was on just
such a day as this, thirty-five years ago, that I was born in the
secluded village of Puddlecome of humble but honest parents. Nestling
among the western hills..."
And so on. Ending, at the dessert, with the thousand we earned that
The Etiquette of Escape
There is a girl in one of William de Morgan's books who interrupts the
narrator of a breathless tiger-hunting story with the rather
disconcerting warning, "I'm on the side of the tiger; I always am."
It was the sporting instinct. Tigers may be wicked beasts who defend
themselves when they are attacked, but one cannot help feeling a
little sorry for them. Their number is up. The hunters are too many,
the rifles too accurate, for the hunted to have any real chance. So
she was on the side of the tiger; she always was.
In the same way I am on the side of the convict; I always am. Not, of
course, until he is a convict. But when once the Law has condemned
him, and he is safely in prison, then he is only one against so many.
It is impossible not to sympathize with his attempts to escape.
Perhaps, if one lived close to a prison, in a cottage, say, whose
tenant was invariably called upon by any escaping prisoner and made to
exchange clothes with the help of a crow-bar, one might feel
differently. But in theory we are all of us inclined to applaud the
man who fights successfully such a lone battle against such tremendous
odds; yes, even if it was the blackest of crimes which sent him into
It is, therefore, extraordinarily jolly to read about the escape of
political prisoners from gaol. One has to stifle no protests from
one's conscience while applauding them, for it is absurd to suppose
that the world is any the worse place for their being loose again.
Probably they are much more dangerous in prison than out of it. But
besides applauding them, one envies them heartily. What fun they must
have had when arranging it! What fun, too, to attempt an escape, when
the worst that can happen to you, if you are recaptured, is that the
next escape becomes a little more difficult. No bread and water, no
punishment cell for a political prisoner.
All the same, these are not quite the ideal escapes. I am a trifle
exigent in such matters. I allow my prisoners a little latitude, but
there are certain rules which must be observed. Sinn Feiners, for
instance, make it much too easy for themselves. Their friends from
outside are permitted to visit them, and to discuss openly (but of
course, in Irish) all the arrangements for the great day. When the day
comes, they make off by motor-car, and as likely as not have a
steam-yacht waiting for them on the coast. It was not thus that I used
to escape in the early nineties. I observed the rules.
The first rule was that the only means of communication with outside
was the roll of bread which formed one's principal meal. Biting
eagerly into the bread, the hungry prisoner found himself entangled in
a message from his loved one. Of course, in these last few years he
would just have thought that it was part of the bread, perhaps a
trifle more indigestible than usual, but in those days he would have
no excuse for not realizing that his Araminta was getting into touch
with him. This first message did not say much; just "All my love, and
I am sending a file to-morrow," so as to prevent him from breaking
his jaw on it. On the next day, he would open the roll cautiously, and
behold! a small file would be embedded within.
It is wonderful what can be done with quite a small file. But we must
remember that the world moved more slowly in those days. One had
leisure in which to do a job of work properly. Perhaps our prisoner
took a couple of years filing the gyves off his wrists (holding the
file carefully in the teeth), and another year to remove the manacles
from his ankles. Fortunately he was left alone to pursue these
avocations. The goaler pushed in the daily portion of bread and water,
but made no inquiry about his prisoner's well-being. Only the
essential tame rat kept him company, and Araminta outside, to whom he
dropped an occasional note to say that he had done another millimetre
that morning. Perhaps she did not get it; it was borne swiftly away by
the river which flowed beneath the walls, and never came to the
opposite bank, whereon she waited for him. But she did not lose hope.
These things always took a long time.
And then, when the fetters had been removed, and two of the bars in
the narrow window had been sawn through, there came the great moment.
The prisoner was now free to tear his sheet and his blanket and his
underclothes into strips, and plait himself a rope. One had to time
this for the summer, of course. One couldn't go cutting up one's shirt
in the middle of winter. So, upon a dark night in August, the prisoner
tied his rope to the remaining bar, squeezed through the window, and
let himself down into space. Was the rope long enough? It wasn't, of
course; it never was. But, once at the end of it, the prisoner would
realize, his senses quickened by the emergency, that it was too late
to go back. From the extreme end he breathed a prayer and dropped....
_Splash!_ And five minutes later he was embracing Araminta. There was
no pursuit; they were sportsmen in those days, and it was recognized
that he had won.
That is the classic mode of escape. But there are variants of it which
I am prepared to allow. The goaler may have a daughter, who, moved by
the romantic history and pallor of the prisoner, may exchange clothes
with him. The prisoner may pass himself off for dead, may be actually
buried, and then rescued from the grave just in time by the pre-warned
and ever-ready Araminta. There are many legitimate ways of escape, but
the essential thing is that all messages to the prisoner from his
Araminta outside should be conveyed in his loaf of bread. To whisper
them in Irish is too easy, too unromantic.
But in any case I am on the side of the prisoner. I always am.
The other day I met a man who didn't know where Tripoli was. Tripoli
happened to come into the conversation, and he was evidently at a
loss. "Let's see," he said. "Tripoli is just down by the--er--you
know. What's the name of that place?" "That's right," I answered,
"just opposite Thingumabob. I could show you in a minute on the map.
It's near--what do they call it?" At this moment the train stopped,
and I got out and went straight home to look at my atlas.
Of course I really knew exactly where Tripoli was. About thirty years
ago, when I learnt geography, one of the questions they were always
asking me was, "What are the exports of Spain, and where is
Tripoli?" But much may happen in twenty years; coast erosion and
tidal waves and things like that. I looked at the map in order to
assure myself that Tripoli had remained pretty firm. As far as I could
make it out it had moved. Certainly it must have looked different
thirty years ago, for I took some little time to locate it. But no
doubt one's point of view changes with the decades. To a boy Tripoli
might seem a long way from Italy--even in Asia Minor; but when he grew
up his standards of measurement would be altered. Tripoli would appear
in its proper place due south of Sicily.
I always enjoy these periodic excursions to my atlas. People talk a
good deal of nonsense about the importance of teaching geography at
school instead of useless subjects like Latin and Greek, but so long
as you have an atlas near you, of what use is geography? Why waste
time learning where Tripoli and Fiume are, when you can turn to a map
of Africa and spot them in a moment? In a leading article in _The
Times_ (no less--our premier English newspaper) it was stated during a
general election that Darlington was in Yorkshire. You may say that
_The Times_ leader writers ought to have been taught geography; I say
that unfortunately they have been taught geography. They learnt, or
thought they learnt, that Darlington was a Yorkshire town. If they had
been left in a state of decent ignorance, they would have looked for
Darlington in the map and found that it was in Durham. (One
moment--Map 29--Yes, Durham; that's right.) As it is, there are at
this moment some hundreds of retired colonels who go about believing
implicitly that Darlington is in Yorkshire because _The Times_ has
said it. How much more important than a knowledge of geography is the
possession of an atlas.
My own atlas is a particularly fine specimen. It contains all sorts of
surprising maps which never come into ordinary geography. I think my
favourite is a picture of the Pacific Ocean, coloured in varying
shades of blue according to the depths of the sea. The deep
ultramarine terrifies me. I tremble for a ship which is passing over
it, and only breathe again when it reaches the very palest blue. There
is one little patch--the Nero Deep in the Ladrone Basin--which is
actually 31,614 feet deep. I suppose if you sailed over it you would
find it no bluer than the rest of the sea, and if you fell into it you
would feel no more alarmed than if it were 31,613 feet deep; but still
you cannot see it in the atlas without a moment's awe.
Then my atlas has a map of "The British Empire showing the great
commercial highways"; another of "The North Polar regions showing
the progress of explorations"; maps of the trade routes, of gulf
streams, and beautiful things of that kind. It tells you how far it is
from Southampton to Fremantle, so that if you are interested in the
M.C.C. Australian team you can follow them day by day across the sea.
Why, with all your geographical knowledge you couldn't even tell me
the distance between Yokohama and Honolulu, but I can give the answer
in a moment--3,379 miles. Also I know exactly what a section of the
world along lat. 45 deg. N. looks like--and there are very few of our
most learned men who can say as much.
But my atlas goes even farther than this, though I for one do not
follow it. It gives diagrams of exports and imports; it tells you
where things are manufactured or where grown; it gives pictures of
sheep--an immense sheep representing New Zealand and a mere insect
representing Russia, and alas! no sheep at all for Canada and Germany
and China. Then there are large cigars for America and small mild
cigars for France and Germany; pictures in colour of such unfamiliar
objects as spindles and raw silk and miners and Mongolians and iron
ore; statistics of traffic receipts and diamonds. I say that I don't
follow my atlas here, because information of this sort does not seem
to belong properly to an atlas. This is not my idea of geography at
all. When I open my atlas I open it to look at maps--to find out where
Tripoli is--not to acquire information about flax and things; yet I
cannot forego the boast that if I wanted I could even speak at length
And lastly there is the index. Running my eye down it, I can tell you
in less than a minute where such different places as Jorobado, Kabba,
Hidegkut, Paloo, and Pago Pago are to be found. Could you, even after
your first-class honours in the Geography Tripos, be as certain as I
am? Of Hidegkut, perhaps, or Jorobado, but not of Pago Pago.
On the other hand, you might possibly have known where Tripoli was.
At the beginning of every pantomime season, we are brought up against
two original discoveries. The first is that Mr. Arthur Collins has
undoubtedly surpassed himself; the other, that "the children's
pantomime" is not really a pantomime for children at all. Mr.
Collins, in fact, has again surpassed himself in providing an
entertainment for men and women of the world.
One has to ask oneself, then, what sort of pantomime children really
like. I ought to know, because I once tried to write one, and some
kind critic was found to say (as generally happens on these occasions)
that I showed "a wonderful insight into the child's mind." Perhaps
he was thinking of the elephant. The manager had a property elephant
left over from some other play which he had produced lately. There it
was, lying in the wings and getting in everybody's way. I think he had
left it about in the hope that I might be inspired by it. At one of
the final rehearsals, after I had fallen over this elephant several
times, he said, "It's a pity we aren't going to use the elephant.
Couldn't you get it in somewhere?" I said that I thought I could.
After all, getting an elephant into a play is merely a question of
stagecraft. If you cannot get an elephant on and off the stage in a
natural way, your technique is simply hopeless, and you had better
give up writing plays altogether. I need hardly say that my technique
was quite up to the work. At the critical moment the boy-hero said,
"Look, there's an elephant," pointing to that particular part of the
stage by which alone it could enter, and there, sure enough, the
elephant was. It then went through its trick of conveying a bun to its
mouth, after which the boy said, "Good-bye, elephant," and it was
hauled off backwards. Of course it intruded a certain gross
materialism into the delicate fancy of my play, but I did not care to
say so, because one has to keep in with the manager. Besides, there
was the elephant, eating its head off; it might just as well be used.
Well, so far as the children were concerned, the elephant was the
success of the play. Up to the moment of its entrance they were--well,
I hope not bored, but no more than politely interested. But as soon as
the hero said, "Look, there's an elephant," you could feel them all
jumping up and down in their seats and saying "Oo!" Nor was this
"Oo" atmosphere ever quite dispelled thereafter. The elephant had
withdrawn, but there was always the hope now that he might come on
again, and if an elephant, why not a giraffe, a hippopotamus, or a
polar-bear? For the rest of the pantomime every word was followed with
breathless interest. At any moment the hero might come out with
another brilliant line--"Look, there's a hippopotamus." Even when it
was proved, with the falling of the final curtain, that the author had
never again risen to these heights, there was still one chance left.
Perhaps if they clapped loudly enough, the elephant would hear, and
would take a call like the others.
What sort of pantomime do children like? It is a strange thing that we
never ask ourselves "What sort of plays--or books or pictures--do
public-school men like?" You say that that would be an absurd
question. Yet it is not nearly so absurd as the other. For the real
differences of thought and feeling between you and your neighbour were
there when you were children, and your agreements are the result of
the subsequent community of interests which you have shared--in
similar public-schools, universities, services, or professions. Why
should two children want to see the same pantomime? Apart from the
fact that "two children" may mean such different samples of humanity
as a boy of five and a girl of fifteen, is there any reason why
Smith's child and Robinson's child should think alike? And as for your
child, my dear sir (or madam), I have only to look at it--and at
you--to see at once how utterly different it is from every other child
which has ever been born. Obviously it would want something very much
superior to the sort of pantomime which would amuse those very
ordinary children of which Smith and Robinson are so proud.
I cannot, therefore, advance my own childish recollections of my first
pantomime as trustworthy evidence of what other children like. But I
should wish you to know that when I was taken to _Beauty and the
Beast_ at the age of seven, it was no elephant, nor any other kind of
beast, which made the afternoon sacred for me. It was Beauty. I just
gazed and gazed at Beauty. Never had I seen anything so lovely. For
weeks afterwards I dreamed about her. Nothing that was said or done on
the stage mattered so long as she was there. Probably the author had
put some of his most delightful work into that pantomime--"dialogue
which showed a wonderful insight into the child's mind"; I apologize
to him for not having listened to it. (I can sympathize with him now.)
Or it may be that the author had written for men and women of the
world; his dialogue was full of that sordid cynicism about married
life which is still considered amusing, so that the aunt who took me
wondered if this were really a pantomime suitable for children. Poor
dear!--as if I heard a word of it, I who was just waiting for Beauty
to come back.
What do children like? I do not think that there is any answer to that
question. They like anything; they like everything; they like so many
different things. But I am certain that there has never been an ideal
play for very young children. It will never be written, for the reason
that no self-respecting writer could bore himself so completely as to
write it. (Also it is doubtful if fathers and mothers, uncles and
aunts, would sacrifice themselves a second time, after they had once
sat through it.) For very young children do not want humour or
whimsicality or delicate fancy or any of the delightful properties
which we attribute to the ideal children's play. I do not say that
they will rise from their stalls and call loudly for their
perambulators, if these qualities creep into the play, but they can
get on very happily without them. All that they want is a continuous
procession of ordinary everyday events--the arrival of elephants (such
as they see at the Zoo), or of postmen and policemen (such as they see
in their street), the simplest form of clowning or of practical joke,
the most photographically dull dialogue. For a grown-up it would be an
appalling play to sit through, and still more appalling play to have
Perhaps you protest that your children love _Peter Pan_. Of course
they do. They would be horrible children if they didn't. And they
would be horrible children if they did not love (as I am sure they do)
a Drury Lane pantomime. A nice child would love _Hamlet_. But I also
love _Peter Pan_; and for this reason I feel that it cannot possibly
be the ideal play for children. I do not, however, love the Drury Lane
pantomime... which leaves me with the feeling that it may really be
"the children's pantomime" after all.
The Road to Knowledge
My pipe being indubitably smoked out to the last grain, I put it in my
pocket and went slowly up to the nursery, trying to feel as much like
that impersonation of a bear which would inevitably be demanded of me
as is possible to a man of mild temperament. But I had alarmed myself
unnecessarily. There was no demand for bears. Each child lay on its
front, engrossed in a volume of _The Children's Encyclopaedia_. Nobody
looked up as I came in. Greatly relieved, I also took a volume of the
great work and lay down on my front. I came away from my week-end a
different man. For the first time in my life I was well informed. If
you had only met me on the Monday and asked me the right questions, I
could have surprised you. Perhaps, even now... but alas! my knowledge
is slipping away from me, and probably the last of it will be gone
before I have finished this article.
For this _Encyclopaedia_ (as you may have read in the advertisements)
makes a feature of answering all those difficult questions which
children ask grown-ups, and which grown-ups really want to ask
somebody else. Well, perhaps not all those questions. There are two to
which there were no answers in my volume, nor, I suspect, in any of
the other volumes, and yet these are the two questions more often
asked than any others. "How did God begin?" and "Where do babies
come from?" Perhaps they were omitted because the answers to them are
so easy. "That, my child, is something which you had better ask your
mother," one replies; or if one is the mother, "You must wait till
you are grown-up, dear." Nor did I see any mention of the most
difficult question of all, the question of the little girl who had
just been assured that God could do anything. "Then, if He can do
anything, can He make a stone so heavy that He can't lift it?"
Perhaps the editor is waiting for his second edition before he answers
that one. But upon such matters as "Why does a stone sink?" or
"Where does the wind come from?" or "What makes thunder?" he is
But I felt all the time that in this part of his book he really had
his eye on me and my generation rather than on the children. No child
wants to know why a stone sinks; it knows the answer already--"What
else could it do?" Even Sir Isaac Newton was a grown-up before he
asked why an apple fell, and there had been men in the world fifty
thousand years before that (yes I have been reading _The Outline of
History_, too), none of whom bothered his head about gravitation. Yes,
the editor was thinking all the time that you and I ought to know more
about these things. Of course, we should be too shy to order the book
for ourselves, but we could borrow it from our young friends
occasionally on the plea of seeing if it was suitable for them, and so
pick up a little of that general knowledge which we lack so sadly.
Where does the wind come from? Well, really, I don't think I know now.
The drawback of all _Guides to Knowledge_ is that one cannot have the
editor at hand in order to cross-examine him. This is particularly so
in the case of a _Children's Encyclopaedia_, for the child's first
question, "Why does this do that?" is meant to have no more finality
than tossing-up at cricket or dealing the cards at bridge. The child
does not really want to know, but it does want to keep up a friendly
conversation, or, if humourously inclined, to see how long you can go
on without getting annoyed. Not always, of course; sometimes it really
is interested; but in most cases, I suspect, the question, "What
makes thunder?" is inspired by politeness or mischief. The grown-up
is bursting to explain, and ought to be humoured; or else he obviously
doesn't know, and ought to be shown up.
But these would not be my motives if the editor of _The Children's
Encyclopaedia_ took me for a walk and allowed me to ask him questions.
The fact that light travels at so many hundred thousand miles an hour
does not interest me; I should accept the information and then ask him
my next question, "How did they find out?" That is always the
intriguing part of the business. Who first realized that light was not
instantaneous? What put him up to it? How did he measure its velocity?
The fact (to take another case) that a cricket chirps by rubbing his
knees together does not interest me; I want to know why he chirps. Is
it involuntary, or is it done with the idea of pleasing? Why does a
bird sing? The editor is prepared to tell me why a parrot is able to
talk, but that is a much less intriguing matter. Why does a bird sing?
I do not want an explanation of a thrush's song or a nightingale's,
but why does a silly bird go on saying "chiff-chaff" all day long?
Is it, for instance, happiness or hiccups?
Possibly these things are explained in some other volume than the one
which fell to me. Possibly they are inexplicable. We can dogmatize
about a star a billion miles away, but we cannot say with certainty
how an idea came to a man or a song to a bird. Indeed, I think,
perhaps, it would have been wiser of me to have left the chiff-chaff
out of it altogether. I have an uneasy feeling that all last year the
chiff-chaff was asking himself why I wrote every day. Was it
involuntary, he wondered, or was it done with the idea of pleasing?
A Man of Property
Yes, a gardener's life is a disappointing one. When it was announced
that we were just too late for everything this year, I decided to buy
some ready-made gardens and keep them about the house, until such time
as Nature was ready to co-operate. So now I have three gardens. This
enables me to wear that superior look (which is so annoying for you)
when you talk about your one little garden in front of me. Then you
get off in disgust and shoot yourself, and they bury you in what you
proudly called your herbaceous border, and people wonder next year why
the delphiniums are so luxuriant--but you are not there to tell them.
Yes, I have three gardens. You come upon the first one as you are
shown up the staircase to the drawing-room. It is outside the
staircase window. This is the daffodil garden--3 ft. 8 ins. by 9 ins.
The vulgar speak of it as a window-box; that is how one knows that
they are vulgar. The maid has her instructions; we are not at home
when next they call.
Sometimes I sit on the stairs and count the daffodils in my garden.
There are seventy-eight of them; seventy-eight or seventy-nine--I
cannot say for certain, because they will keep nodding their heads, so
that sometimes one may escape me, or perhaps I may count another one
twice over. The wall round the daffodil garden is bright blue--I
painted it myself, and still carry patterns of it about with me--and
the result of all these yellow heads on their long green necks waving
above the blue walls of my garden is that we are always making excuses
to each other for going up and down stairs, and the bell in the
drawing-room is never rung.
But I have a fault to find with my daffodils. They turn their backs on
us. It is natural, I suppose, that they do not care to look in at the
window to see what we are doing, preferring the blue sky and the sun,
and all that they can catch of March and April, but the end of it is
that we see too little of their faces; for even if they are trained in
youth with a disposition towards the window, yet as soon as they begin
to come to their full glory they swing round towards the south and
hide their beauty from us. But the House Opposite sees them, and
brings his visitors, you may be sure, to his window to look at them.
Indeed, I should not be surprised if he boasted of it as "his
garden" and were even now writing in a book about it.
My second garden is circular--18 ins. in diameter, and, of course,
more than that all the way round. I can see it now as I write--or,
more accurately, if I stop writing for a moment--for it is just
outside the library window. The vulgar call it a tub--they would;
actually it is the Tulip Garden. At least, the man says so. For the
tulips have not bourgeoned yet. No, I am wrong. (That is the worst of
using these difficult words.) They have bourgeoned, but they have not
blossomed. Their heads are well above ground, they have swelled into
buds, but the buds have not broken. So, for all I know, they may yet
be sun-flowers. However, the man says they will be tulips; he was paid
for tulips; and he assures me that he has had experience in these
matters. For myself, I should never dare to speak with so much
authority. It is not our birth but our upbringing which makes us what
we are, and these tulips have had, during their short lives above
ground, a fatherly care and a watchfulness neither greater nor less
than were bestowed upon the daffodils. That they sprang from different
bulbs seems to me a small matter in comparison with this. However, the
man says that they will be tulips. Presumably yellow ones.
One's gardens get smaller and smaller. My third is only 11 ins. by 9
ins. The vulgar call it a Japanese garden--indeed, I don't see what
else they could call it. East is East and West is West and never the
twain shall meet, but this does not prevent my Japanese garden from
sitting on an old English refectory table in the dining-room. A
Japanese garden needs very careful management. I have three native
gardeners working at it day and night. At least they maintain the
attitudes of men hard at work, but they don't seem to do much; perhaps
they are afraid of throwing one another out of employment. The head
gardener spends his time pointing to the largest cactus, and saying (I
suppose in Japanese), "Look at my cactus!" The other two appear to
be washing his Sunday shirt for him, instead of pruning or potting
out, which is what I pay them for. However, the whole scene is one of
great activity, for in the ornamental water in the middle of the
garden two fishermen are hard at it, hoping to land something for my
breakfast. So far they have not had a bite.
My Japanese garden has this advantage over the others, that it is
independent of the seasons. The daffodils will bow their heads and
droop away. The tulips--well, let us be sure that they are tulips
first; but, if the man is correct, they too will wither. But the green
hedgehog which friends tell me is a cactus will just go on and on. It
must have some source of self-nourishment, for it can derive little
from the sand whereon it rests. Perhaps, like most of us, it thrives
on appreciation, and the gardener, who points to it so proudly day and
night, is rightly employed after all. He knows that if once he dropped
his hand, or looked the other way, the cactus would give it up
It is fortunate for you that I am writing this week, and not later,
for I have now ordered three more gardens, circular ones, to sit