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- Idle Ideas in 1905 - 1/29 -
IDLE IDEAS IN 1905
by Jerome K. Jerome
Are We As Interesting As We Think We Are? Should Women Be Beautiful? When Is The Best Time To Be Merry? Do We Lie A-Bed Too Late? Should Married Men Play Golf? Are Early Marriages A Mistake? Do Writers Write Too Much? Should Soldiers Be Polite? Ought Stories To Be True? Creatures That One Day Shall Be Men How To Be Happy Though Little Should We Say What We Think, Or Think What We Say? Is The American Husband Made Entirely Of Stained Glass Does The Young Man Know Everything Worth Knowing? How Many Charms Hath Music, Would You Say? The white man's burden! Need it be so heavy? Why Didn't He Marry The Girl? What Mrs. Wilkins thought about it Shall We Be Ruined By Chinese Cheap Labour? How To Solve The Servant Problem Why We Hate The Foreigner
ARE WE AS INTERESTING AS WE THINK WE ARE?
"Charmed. Very hot weather we've been having of late--I mean cold. Let me see, I did not quite catch your name just now. Thank you so much. Yes, it is a bit close." And a silence falls, neither of us being able to think what next to say.
What has happened is this: My host has met me in the doorway, and shaken me heartily by the hand.
"So glad you were able to come," he has said. "Some friends of mine here, very anxious to meet you." He has bustled me across the room. "Delightful people. You'll like them--have read all your books."
He has brought me up to a stately lady, and has presented me. We have exchanged the customary commonplaces, and she, I feel, is waiting for me to say something clever, original and tactful. And I don't know whether she is Presbyterian or Mormon; a Protectionist or a Free Trader; whether she is engaged to be married or has lately been divorced!
A friend of mine adopts the sensible plan of always providing you with a short history of the person to whom he is about to lead you.
"I want to introduce you to a Mrs. Jones," he whispers. "Clever woman. Wrote a book two years ago. Forget the name of it. Something about twins. Keep away from sausages. Father ran a pork shop in the Borough. Husband on the Stock Exchange. Keep off coke. Unpleasantness about a company. You'll get on best by sticking to the book. Lot in it about platonic friendship. Don't seem to be looking too closely at her. Has a slight squint she tries to hide."
By this time we have reached the lady, and he introduces me as a friend of his who is simply dying to know her.
"Wants to talk about your book," he explains. "Disagrees with you entirely on the subject of platonic friendship. Sure you'll be able to convince him."
It saves us both a deal of trouble. I start at once on platonic friendship, and ask her questions about twins, avoiding sausages and coke. She thinks me an unusually interesting man, and I am less bored than otherwise I might be.
I have sometimes thought it would be a serviceable device if, in Society, we all of us wore a neat card--pinned, say, upon our back-- setting forth such information as was necessary; our name legibly written, and how to be pronounced; our age (not necessarily in good faith, but for purposes of conversation. Once I seriously hurt a German lady by demanding of her information about the Franco-German war. She looked to me as if she could not object to being taken for forty. It turned out she was thirty-seven. Had I not been an Englishman I might have had to fight a duel); our religious and political beliefs; together with a list of the subjects we were most at home upon; and a few facts concerning our career--sufficient to save the stranger from, what is vulgarly termed "putting his foot in it." Before making jokes about "Dumping," or discussing the question of Chinese Cheap Labour, one would glance behind and note whether one's companion was ticketed "Whole-hogger," or "Pro-Boer." Guests desirous of agreeable partners--an "agreeable person," according to the late Lord Beaconsfield's definition, being "a person who agrees with you"--could make their own selection.
"Excuse me. Would you mind turning round a minute? Ah, 'Wagnerian Crank!' I am afraid we should not get on together. I prefer the Italian school."
Or, "How delightful. I see you don't believe in vaccination. May I take you into supper?"
Those, on the other hand, fond of argument would choose a suitable opponent. A master of ceremonies might be provided who would stand in the centre of the room and call for partners: "Lady with strong views in favour of female franchise wishes to meet gentleman holding the opinions of St. Paul. With view to argument."
An American lady, a year or two ago, wrote me a letter that did me real good: she appreciated my work with so much understanding, criticised it with such sympathetic interest. She added that, when in England the summer before, she had been on the point of accepting an invitation to meet me; but at the last moment she had changed her mind; she felt so sure--she put it pleasantly, but this is what it came to--that in my own proper person I should fall short of her expectations. For my own sake I felt sorry she had cried off; it would have been worth something to have met so sensible a woman. An author introduced to people who have read--or who say that they have read--his books, feels always like a man taken for the first time to be shown to his future wife's relations. They are very pleasant. They try to put him at his ease. But he knows instinctively they are disappointed with him. I remember, when a very young man, attending a party at which a famous American humorist was the chief guest. I was standing close behind a lady who was talking to her husband.
"He doesn't look a bit funny," said the lady.
"Great Scott!" answered her husband. "How did you expect him to look? Did you think he would have a red nose and a patch over one eye?"
"Oh, well, he might look funnier than that, anyhow," retorted the lady, highly dissatisfied. "It isn't worth coming for."
We all know the story of the hostess who, leaning across the table during the dessert, requested of the funny man that he would kindly say something amusing soon, because the dear children were waiting to go to bed. Children, I suppose, have no use for funny people who don't choose to be funny. I once invited a friend down to my house for a Saturday to Monday. He is an entertaining man, and before he came I dilated on his powers of humour--somewhat foolishly perhaps-- in the presence of a certain youthful person who resides with me, and who listens when she oughtn't to, and never when she ought. He happened not to be in a humorous mood that evening. My young relation, after dinner, climbed upon my knee. For quite five minutes she sat silent. Then she whispered:
"Has he said anything funny?"
"Hush. No, not yet; don't be silly."
Five minutes later: "Was that funny?"
"No, of course not."
"Because--can't you hear? We are talking about Old Age Pensions."
"Oh, it's--oh, never mind now. It isn't a subject on which one can be funny."
"Then what's he want to talk about it for?"
She waited for another quarter of an hour. Then, evidently bored, and much to my relief, suggested herself that she might as well go to bed. She ran to me the next morning in the garden with an air of triumph.
"He said something so funny last night," she told me.
"Oh, what was it?" I inquired. It seemed to me I must have missed it.
"Well, I can't exactly 'member it," she explained, "not just at the moment. But it was so funny. I dreamed it, you know."
For folks not Lions, but closely related to Lions, introductions must be trying ordeals. You tell them that for years you have been yearning to meet them. You assure them, in a voice trembling with emotion, that this is indeed a privilege. You go on to add that when a boy -
At this point they have to interrupt you to explain that they are not the Mr. So-and-So, but only his cousin or his grandfather; and all you can think of to say is: "Oh, I'm so sorry."
I had a nephew who was once the amateur long-distance bicycle champion. I have him still, but he is stouter and has come down to a motor car. In sporting circles I was always introduced as "Shorland's Uncle." Close-cropped young men would gaze at me with rapture; and then inquire: "And do you do anything yourself, Mr. Jerome?"
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