A.A. Milne.

Not that it Matters online

. (page 2 of 11)
Online LibraryA.A. MilneNot that it Matters → online text (page 2 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

various branches of industry (including one from a meteorological
expert who, I need hardly tell you, forecasted a wet summer) and
ended with a general summing up of the year by Old Moore or one
of the minor prophets. Old Moore, I am sorry to say, left me

I should like to believe in astrology, but I cannot. I should
like to believe that the heavenly bodies sort themselves into
certain positions in order that Zadkiel may be kept in touch with
the future; the idea of a star whizzing a million miles out of
its path by way of indicating a "sensational divorce case in high
life" is extraordinarily massive. But, candidly, I do not believe
the stars bother. What the stars are for, what they are like when
you get there, I do not know; but a starry night would not be so
beautiful if it were simply meant as a warning to some unpleasant
financier that Kaffirs were going up. The ordinary man looks at
the heavens and thinks what an insignificant atom he is beneath
them; the believer in astrology looks up and realizes afresh his
overwhelming importance. Perhaps, after all, I am glad I do not

Life must be a very tricky thing for the superstitious. At dinner
a night or two ago I happened to say that I had never been in
danger of drowning. I am not sure now that it was true, but I
still think that it was harmless. However, before I had time to
elaborate my theme (whatever it was) I was peremptorily ordered
to touch wood. I protested that both my feet were on the polished
oak and both my elbows on the polished mahogany (one always knew
that some good instinct inspired the pleasant habit of elbows on
the table) and that anyhow I did not see the need. However,
because one must not argue at dinner I tapped the table two or
three times... and now I suppose I am immune. At the same time I
should like to know exactly whom I have appeased.

For this must be the idea of the wood-touching superstition, that
a malignant spirit dogs one's conversational footsteps, listening
eagerly for the complacent word. "I have never had the mumps,"
you say airily. "Ha, ha!" says the spirit, "haven't you? Just you
wait till next Tuesday, my boy." Unconsciously we are crediting
Fate with our own human weaknesses. If a man standing on the edge
of a pond said aloud, "I have never fallen into a pond in my
life," and we happened to be just behind him, the temptation to
push him in would be irresistible. Irresistible, that is by us;
but it is charitable to assume that Providence can control itself
by now.

Of course, nobody really thinks that our good or evil spirits
have any particular feeling about wood, that they like it
stroked; nobody, I suppose, not even the most superstitious,
really thinks that Fate is especially touchy in the matter of
salt and ladders. Equally, of course, many people who throw spilt
salt over their left shoulders are not superstitious in the
least, and are only concerned to display that readiness in the
face of any social emergency which is said to be the mark of good
manners. But there are certainly many who feel that it is the
part of a wise man to propitiate the unknown, to bend before the
forces which work for harm; and they pay tribute to Fate by means
of these little customs in the hope that they will secure in
return an immunity from evil. The tribute is nominal, but it is
an acknowledgment all the same.

A proper sense of proportion leaves no room for superstition. A
man says, "I have never been in a shipwreck," and becoming
nervous touches wood. Why is he nervous? He has this paragraph
before his eyes: "Among the deceased was Mr. - - . By a
remarkable coincidence this gentleman had been saying only a few
days before that he had never been in a shipwreck. Little did he
think that his next voyage would falsify his words so
tragically." It occurs to him that he has read paragraphs like
that again and again. Perhaps he has. Certainly he has never read
a paragraph like this: "Among the deceased was Mr. - - . By a
remarkable coincidence this gentleman had never made the remark
that he had not yet been in a shipwreck." Yet that paragraph
could have been written truthfully thousands of times. A sense of
proportion would tell you that, if only one side of a case is
ever recorded, that side acquires an undue importance. The truth
is that Fate does not go out of its way to be dramatic. If you or
I had the power of life and death in our hands, we should no
doubt arrange some remarkably bright and telling effects. A man
who spilt the salt callously would be drowned next week in the
Dead Sea, and a couple who married in May would expire
simultaneously in the May following. But Fate cannot worry to
think out all the clever things that we should think out. It goes
about its business solidly and unromantically, and by the
ordinary laws of chance it achieves every now and then something
startling and romantic. Superstition thrives on the fact that
only the accidental dramas are reported.

But there are charms to secure happiness as well as charms to
avert evil. In these I am a firm believer. I do not mean that I
believe that a horseshoe hung up in the house will bring me good
luck; I mean that if anybody does believe this, then the hanging
up of his horseshoe will probably bring him good luck. For if you
believe that you are going to be lucky, you go about your
business with a smile, you take disaster with a smile, you start
afresh with a smile. And to do that is to be in the way of

The Charm of Golf

When he reads of the notable doings of famous golfers, the
eighteen-handicap man has no envy in his heart. For by this time
he has discovered the great secret of golf. Before he began to
play he wondered wherein lay the fascination of it; now he knows.
Golf is so popular simply because it is the best game in the
world at which to be bad.

Consider what it is to be bad at cricket. You have bought a new
bat, perfect in balance; a new pair of pads, white as driven
snow; gloves of the very latest design. Do they let you use them?
No. After one ball, in the negotiation of which neither your bat,
nor your pads, nor your gloves came into play, they send you back
into the pavilion to spend the rest of the afternoon listening to
fatuous stories of some old gentleman who knew Fuller Pilch. And
when your side takes the field, where are you? Probably at long
leg both ends, exposed to the public gaze as the worst fieldsman
in London. How devastating are your emotions. Remorse, anger,
mortification, fill your heart; above all, envy - envy of the
lucky immortals who disport themselves on the green level of

Consider what it is to be bad at lawn tennis. True, you are
allowed to hold on to your new racket all through the game, but
how often are you allowed to employ it usefully? How often does
your partner cry "Mine!" and bundle you out of the way? Is there
pleasure in playing football badly? You may spend the full eighty
minutes in your new boots, but your relations with the ball will
be distant. They do not give you a ball to yourself at football.

But how different a game is golf. At golf it is the bad player
who gets the most strokes. However good his opponent, the bad
player has the right to play out each hole to the end; he will
get more than his share of the game. He need have no fears that
his new driver will not be employed. He will have as many swings
with it as the scratch man; more, if he misses the ball
altogether upon one or two tees. If he buys a new niblick he is
certain to get fun out of it on the very first day.

And, above all, there is this to be said for golfing mediocrity -
the bad player can make the strokes of the good player. The poor
cricketer has perhaps never made fifty in his life; as soon as he
stands at the wickets he knows that he is not going to make fifty
to-day. But the eighteen-handicap man has some time or other
played every hole on the course to perfection. He has driven a
ball 250 yards; he has made superb approaches; he has run down
the long putt. Any of these things may suddenly happen to him
again. And therefore it is not his fate to have to sit in the
club smoking- room after his second round and listen to the
wonderful deeds of others. He can join in too. He can say with
perfect truth, "I once carried the ditch at the fourth with my
second," or "I remember when I drove into the bunker guarding the
eighth green," or even "I did a three at the eleventh this
afternoon" - bogey being five. But if the bad cricketer says, "I
remember when I took a century in forty minutes off Lockwood and
Richardson," he is nothing but a liar.

For these and other reasons golf is the best game in the world
for the bad player. And sometimes I am tempted to go further and
say that it is a better game for the bad player than for the good
player. The joy of driving a ball straight after a week of
slicing, the joy of putting a mashie shot dead, the joy of even a
moderate stroke with a brassie; best of all, the joy of the
perfect cleek shot - these things the good player will never know.
Every stroke we bad players make we make in hope. It is never so
bad but it might have been worse; it is never so bad but we are
confident of doing better next time. And if the next stroke is
good, what happiness fills our soul. How eagerly we tell
ourselves that in a little while all our strokes will be as good.

What does Vardon know of this? If he does a five hole in four he
blames himself that he did not do it in three; if he does it in
five he is miserable. He will never experience that happy
surprise with which we hail our best strokes. Only his bad
strokes surprise him, and then we may suppose that he is not
happy. His length and accuracy are mechanical; they are not the
result, as so often in our case, of some suddenly applied maxim
or some suddenly discovered innovation. The only thing which can
vary in his game is his putting, and putting is not golf but

But of course we, too, are going to be as good as Vardon one day.
We are only postponing the day because meanwhile it is so
pleasant to be bad. And it is part of the charm of being bad at
golf that in a moment, in a single night, we may become good. If
the bad cricketer said to a good cricketer, "What am I doing
wrong?" the only possible answer would be, "Nothing particular,
except that you can't play cricket." But if you or I were to say
to our scratch friend, "What am I doing wrong?" he would reply at
once, "Moving the head" or "Dropping the right knee" or "Not
getting the wrists in soon enough," and by to-morrow we should be
different players. Upon such a little depends, or seems to the
eighteen-handicap to depend, excellence in golf.

And so, perfectly happy in our present badness and perfectly
confident of our future goodness, we long-handicap men remain.
Perhaps it would be pleasanter to be a little more certain of
getting the ball safely off the first tee; perhaps at the
fourteenth hole, where there is a right of way and the public
encroach, we should like to feel that we have done with topping;
perhaps - -

Well, perhaps we might get our handicap down to fifteen this
summer. But no lower; certainly no lower.


Let us talk about - well, anything you will. Goldfish, for

Goldfish are a symbol of old-world tranquillity or mid-Victorian
futility according to their position in the home. Outside the
home, in that wild state from which civilization has dragged
them, they may have stood for dare-devil courage or constancy or
devotion; I cannot tell. I may only speak of them now as I find
them, which is in the garden or in the drawing-room. In their
lily-leaved pool, sunk deep in the old flagged terrace, upon
whose borders the blackbird whistles his early-morning song, they
remind me of sundials and lavender and old delightful things. But
in their cheap glass bowl upon the three- legged table, above
which the cloth-covered canary maintains a stolid silence, they
remind me of antimacassars and horsehair sofas and all that is
depressing. It is hard that the goldfish himself should have so
little choice in the matter. Goldfish look pretty in the terrace
pond, yet I doubt if it was the need for prettiness which brought
them there. Rather the need for some thing to throw things to. No
one of the initiate can sit in front of Nature's most wonderful
effect, the sea, without wishing to throw stones into it, the
physical pleasure of the effort and the aesthetic pleasure of the
splash combining to produce perfect contentment. So by the margin
of the pool the same desires stir within one, and because ants'
eggs do not splash, and look untidy on the surface of the water,
there must be a gleam of gold and silver to put the crown upon
one's pleasure.

Perhaps when you have been feeding the goldfish you have not
thought of it like that. But at least you must have wondered why,
of all diets, they should prefer ants' eggs. Ants' eggs are, I
should say, the very last thing which one would take to without
argument. It must be an acquired taste, and, this being so, one
naturally asks oneself how goldfish came to acquire it.

I suppose (but I am lamentably ignorant on these as on all other
matters) that there was a time when goldfish lived a wild free
life of their own. They roamed the sea or the river, or whatever
it was, fighting for existence, and Nature showed them, as she
always does, the food which suited them. Now I have often come
across ants' nests in my travels, but never when swimming. In
seas and rivers, pools and lakes, I have wandered, but Nature has
never put ants' eggs in my way. No doubt - it would be only right-
-the goldfish has a keener eye than I have for these things, but
if they had been there, should I have missed them so completely?
I think not, for if they had been there, they must have been
there in great quantities. I can imagine a goldfish slowly
acquiring the taste for them through the centuries, but only if
other food were denied to him, only if, wherever he went, ants'
eggs, ants' eggs, ants' eggs drifted down the stream to him.

Yet, since it would seem that he has acquired the taste, it can
only be that the taste has come to him with captivity - has been
forced upon him, I should have said. The old wild goldfish (this
is my theory) was a more terrible beast than we think. Given his
proper diet, he could not have been kept within the limits of the
terrace pool. He would have been unsuited to domestic life; he
would have dragged in the shrieking child as she leant to feed
him. As the result of many experiments ants' eggs were given him
to keep him thin (you can see for yourself what a bloodless diet
it is), ants' eggs were given him to quell his spirit; and just
as a man, if he has sufficient colds, can get up a passion even
for ammoniated quinine, so the goldfish has grown in captivity to
welcome the once-hated omelette.

Let us consider now the case of the goldfish in the house. His
diet is the same, but how different his surroundings! If his bowl
is placed on a table in the middle of the floor, he has but to
flash his tail once and he has been all round the drawing-room.
The drawing-room may not seem much to you, but to him this
impressionist picture through the curved glass must be amazing.
Let not the outdoor goldfish boast of his freedom. What does he,
in his little world of water-lily roots, know of the vista upon
vista which opens to his more happy brother as he passes jauntily
from china dog to ottoman and from ottoman to Henry's father? Ah,
here is life! It may be that in the course of years he will get
used to it, even bored by it; indeed, for that reason I always
advocate giving him a glance at the dining-room or the bedrooms
on Wednesdays and Saturdays; but his first day in the bowl must
be the opening of an undreamt of heaven to him.

Again, what an adventurous life is his. At any moment a cat may
climb up and fetch him out, a child may upset him, grown-ups may
neglect to feed him or to change his water. The temptation to
take him up and massage him must be irresistible to outsiders.
All these dangers the goldfish in the pond avoids; he lives a
sheltered and unexciting life, and when he wants to die he dies
unnoticed, unregretted, but for his brother the tears and the
solemn funeral.

Yes; now that I have thought it out, I can see that I was wrong
in calling the indoor goldfish a symbol of mid-Victorian
futility. An article of this sort is no good if it does not teach
the writer something as well as his readers. I recognize him now
as the symbol of enterprise and endurance, of restlessness and
Post-Impressionism. He is not mid-Victorian, he is Fifth

Which is all I want to say about goldfish.

Saturday to Monday

The happy man would have happy faces round him; a sad face is a
reproach to him for his happiness. So when I escape by the 2.10
on Saturday I distribute largesse with a liberal hand. The
cabman, feeling that an effort is required of him, mentions that
I am the first gentleman he has met that day; he penetrates my
mufti and calls me captain, leaving it open whether he regards me
as a Salvation Army captain or the captain of a barge. The
porters hasten to the door of my cab; there is a little struggle
between them as to who shall have the honour of waiting upon me.

Inside the station things go on as happily. The booking-office
clerk gives me a pleasant smile; he seems to approve of the
station I am taking. "Some do go to Brighton," he implies, "but
for a gentleman like you - " He pauses to point out that with this
ticket I can come back on the Tuesday if I like (as, between
ourselves, I hope to do). In exchange for his courtesies I push
him my paper through the pigeon hole. A dirty little boy thrust
it into my cab; I didn't want it, but as we are all being happy
to- day he had his penny.

I follow my porter to the platform. "On the left," says the
ticket collector. He has said it mechanically to a hundred
persons, but he becomes human and kindly as he says it to me. I
feel that he really wishes me to get into the right train, to
have a pleasant journey down, to be welcomed heartily by my
friends when I arrive. It is not as to one of a mob but to an
individual that he speaks.

The porter has found me an empty carriage. He is full of ideas
for my comfort; he tells me which way the train will start, where
we stop, and when we may be expected to arrive. Am I sure I
wouldn't like my bag in the van? Can he get me any papers? No;
no, thanks. I don't want to read. I give him sixpence, and there
is another one of us happy.

Presently the guard. He also seems pleased that I have selected
this one particular station from among so many. Pleased, but not
astonished; he expected it of me. It is a very good run down in
his train, and he shouldn't be surprised if we had a fine week-
end. ...

I stand at the door of ray carriage feeling very happy. It is
good to get out of London. Come to think of it, we are all
getting out of London, and none of us is going to do any work to-
morrow. How jolly! Oh, but what about my porter? Bother! I wish
now I'd given him more than sixpence. Still, he may have a
sweetheart and be happy that way.

We are off. I have nothing to read, but then I want to think. It
is the ideal place in which to think, a railway carriage; the
ideal place in which to be happy. I wonder if I shall be in good
form this week-end at cricket and tennis, and croquet and
billiards, and all the other jolly games I mean to play. Look at
those children trying to play cricket in that dirty backyard.
Poor little beggars! Fancy living in one of those horrible
squalid houses. But you cannot spoil to- day for me, little
backyards. On Tuesday perhaps, when I am coming again to the ugly
town, your misery will make me miserable; I shall ask myself
hopelessly what it all means; but just now I am too happy for
pity. After all, why should I assume that you envy me, you two
children swinging on a gate and waving to me? You are happy,
aren't you? Of course; we are all happy to-day. See, I am waving
back to you.

My eyes wander round the carriage and rest on my bag. Have I put
everything in? Of course I have. Then why this uneasy feeling
that I have left something very important out? Well, I can soon
settle the question. Let's start with to-night. Evening clothes -
they're in, I know. Shirts, collars ...

I go through the whole programme for the week-end, allotting
myself in my mind suitable clothes for each occasion. Yes; I seem
to have brought everything that I can possibly want. But what a
very jolly programme I am drawing up for myself! Will it really
be as delightful as that? Well, it was last time, and the time
before; that is why I am so happy.

The train draws up at its only halt in the glow of a September
mid-afternoon. There is a little pleasant bustle; nice people get
out and nice people meet them; everybody seems very cheery and
contented. Then we are off again ... and now the next station is

We are there. A porter takes my things with a kindly smile and a
"Nice day." I see Brant outside with the wagonette, not the trap;
then I am not the only guest coming by this train. Who are the
others, I wonder. Anybody I know? ... Why, yes, it's Bob and Mrs.
Bob, and - hallo! - Cynthia! And isn't that old Anderby? How
splendid! I must get that shilling back from Bob that I lost to
him at billiards last time. And if Cynthia really thinks that she
can play croquet ...

We greet each other happily and climb into the wagonette. Never
has the country looked so lovely. "No; no rain at all," says
Brant, "and the glass is going up." The porter puts our luggage
in the cart and comes round with a smile. It is a rotten life
being a porter, and I do so want everybody to enjoy this
afternoon. Besides, I haven't any coppers.

I slip half a crown into his palm. Now we are all very, very

The Pond

My friend Aldenham's pond stands at a convenient distance from
the house, and is reached by a well-drained gravel path; so that
in any weather one may walk, alone or in company, dry shod to its
brink, and estimate roughly how many inches of rain have fallen
in the night. The ribald call it the hippopotamus pond, tracing a
resemblance between it and the bath of the hippopotamus at the
Zoo, beneath the waters of which, if you particularly desire to
point the hippopotamus out to somebody, he always lies hidden. To
the rest of us it is known simply as "the pond" - a designation
which ignores the existence of several neighbouring ponds, the
gifts of nature, and gives the whole credit to the handiwork of
man. For "the pond" is just a small artificial affair of cement,
entirely unpretentious.

There are seven steps to the bottom of the pond, and each step is
10 in. high. Thus the steps help to make the pond a convenient
rain- gauge; for obviously when only three steps are left
uncovered, as was the case last Monday, you know that there have
been 40 in. of rain since last month, when the pond began to
fill. To strangers this may seem surprising, and it is only fair
to tell them the great secret, which is that much of the
surrounding land drains secretly into the pond too. This seems to
me to give a much fairer indication of the rain that has fallen
than do the official figures in the newspapers. For when your
whole day's cricket has been spoilt, it is perfectly absurd to be
told that .026 of an inch of rain has done the damage; the soul
yearns for something more startling than that The record of the
pond, that there has been another 5 in., soothes us, where the
record of the ordinary pedantic rain-gauge would leave us
infuriated. It speaks much for my friend Aldenham's breadth of
view that he understood this, and planned the pond accordingly.

A most necessary thing in a country house is that there should be
a recognized meeting-place, where the people who have been
writing a few letters after breakfast may, when they have
finished, meet those who have no intention of writing any, and
arrange plans with them for the morning. I am one of those who
cannot write letters in another man's house, and when my pipe is
well alight I say to Miss Robinson - or whoever it may be - "Let's
go and look at the pond." "Right oh," she says willingly enough,
having spent the last quarter of an hour with The Times Financial
Supplement, all of the paper that is left to the women in the
first rush for the cricket news. We wander down to the pond
together, and perhaps find Brown and Miss Smith there. "A lot of

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryA.A. MilneNot that it Matters → online text (page 2 of 11)