Produced by Stan Goodman and Curtis A. Weyant
IF I MAY
A. A. MILNE
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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
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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
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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.
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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
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IF I MAY
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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 can claim.
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 the A.S.C.
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 his publisher.
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 few months.
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 one.
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 gunpowder.
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 lead-poisoning.
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 anyway.
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 John altogether.
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 oneself.
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 princes.
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 servant upstairs.
“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 original.
“Er–have you been to any theatres lately?”
No, no, everybody says that. Well, then, what can we say? Let us try again.
“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 again.
“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 introduced.
“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 morning.
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 captivity.
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 about flax.
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 to write.
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 delightfully informing.
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 disheartened.
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