What’s the point of all this?
I recently came across a book by A.A.Milne (yes, that A.A.Milne) entitled “Not that it Matters”.
It is a series of notes he did for now defunct magazines in the 1900’s. They aren’t about very much, as the title indicates, but touch on the vicissitudes of life. For example, the injustice inherent in some folk being able to effortlessly wear, and appear to be comfortable in, a starched collar. Almost as irrelevant when written as it is today – but don’t you still hate it when someone is so cool? And there’s a great theory about how charming golf is because it is the best sport to be bad at. Or how goldfish in bowls were likely to be happier than those in ponds.
The main point about A.A.Milne’s elegant prose is that it was gently satirical and beautifully written. In a similar vein there is L.J.K.Setright, a motoring writer with a great turn of sardonic phrase . On an expensive car “the seats are wide enough for fat company directors who need to get back to thinking about the big business that must concern them if they can afford all that money”. Or D. Phillps-Birt writing on the design of yachts – “Masts are tricky things. It is not for nothing that Lloyd’s, which is ready to specify the scantlings of nearly every other part of a yacht, washes its hands of them altogether and plants the responsibility for their size and shape squarely on the designer’s shoulders; then, as a happy afterthought, advises him to fit lightning conductors. The advice is good; but it leaves the part between the lightning conductor and the step open to various interpretations.”
I suppose it’s the informed understatement of these and other writers which appeals to me most. The well-constructed utterances of people who wear their learning lightly contrast so strongly with the hasty ill-informed flood that bears down on us today. And as I rather disconcertingly find myself becoming more human-intolerant (a bit like dairy intolerant, but at least I can still eat cheese) I like the humanity which underpins the output of writers like this.
It’s not an exercise in nostalgia – I genuinely think this is an amazing time to be alive, even if some aspects are a bit more “interesting” than you might like. Nor is it a grumpy old man show, which can be funny for a while but soon becomes pretty unrewarding for everyone concerned.
All that said, the occasional “that can’t be right” or “hang on just a moment” will creep in when I think moments of madness are getting to be too frequent. It may be of course that everyone else is sane, and that I am mad, in which case you can have a good laugh at my expense. But I do hanker after considered output, and while my own efforts are nothing like as elegant, and usually nothing like as erudite, as the writers I admire, I hope they bring some pleasure or amusement. And maybe even provoke a thought?