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Byline By MJ AkbarL Who Said This?
‘Children nowadays love luxury, have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for elders."
Who said this?
One of the more educative joys is to read intelligent book reviews. The success of a review is generally measured by the speed with which you order the book afterwards, or cancel any such intentions. Very occasionally there appears a review that is so intelligent that it makes purchase of the book redundant. This is hard luck upon the author and the publisher, and my heart goes out to both for predictable reasons. I saw one such review in the Christmas issue of the Spectator. The unfortunate publisher is Hodder and Stoughton, and the unlucky compiler of Keeping My Words: An Anthology from Cradle to Grave is Magnus Magnusson. The review did nothing more, or indeed less, than string together a selection of the best quotes; in the flavour was the dish.
The quotation recorded above is from this collection. Proof of its relevance appears wherever you look, although its defining words need to be understood more clearly. Luxury does not mean buying Louis Vuitton shoes or Cartier watches. It simply means buying what your parents cannot afford. A pair of Diesel jeans for an insistent child therefore is a serious luxury for any middle-class Indian parent. (When the child stops being a child, earns a salary and buys himself something he cannot afford, he is being self-indulgent, which is no one else’s business.)
Bad manners is a similar disease: it is doing what your parents do not want you to do, like misbehaving with boring relatives or being nasty to their spoilt children.
On the other hand I rather like the idea of children having contempt for authority. This is surely one of the redeeming features of youth. Respect for authority is designed to make you a carbon copy of the establishment, ending all hope of change and progress.
So who said this?
Socrates was born in 469 BC and committed suicide in 399 BC at the venerable age of 70. It confirms my theory that but for electricity life hasn’t changed all that much in two and a half thousand years.
I was familiar with only three of the quotations offered in the review. Of them, Mark Twain’s take on sons and dads finds a place in just about any anthology: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." As Einstein pointed out, everything is relative, but nothing is more relative than relations between father and son.
Those who have read Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, the terrible twins of the old Esquire magazine, a brilliant monthly offering of wit and fiction that has been modernised to suit the tastes of kids of 14, will surely recall Vidal’s remark upon learning that his friend and rival Capote had died: "That was a good career move." Cats cannot begin to compete against New York’s literary elitists.
And if you have not for some odd reason read a non-elitist American called Ogden Nash, then I urge you to rush to the nearest bookstore, for the long-dead author is still alive in reprint. Here are his considered feelings on the complex tiers of age:
And middle age ends
The day your descendants
Outnumber your friends.
I suppose the point of such an anthology is to provide a working philosophy for the reader, but trust the Russians to take it too far. Since Anton Chekhov is 19th century Russian I expect gloom, but this is life with a permanent overcast: "If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t get married." How do you recognise a married couple in a restaurant? They are the two who aren’t talking.
Americans, unlike Russians, are not gloomy, but when their hearts break you can hear the sound all the way in India. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is as American as his name, gets Chekhovian on another slant: "It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won’t save us any more than love did." But, honestly, who falls in love to be saved?
The French, naturally, have a very different take on friendship; the Frenchwoman being in a class by herself. The author Colette sniffs: "My true friends have always given me supreme proof of devotion, a spontaneous aversion for the man I loved."
The Frenchman has a justified foreboding of the Frenchwoman. Alexandre Dumas (of Musketeers fame) is certain that "It is only rarely that one can see in a little boy the promise of a man, but one can almost always see in a little girl the threat of a woman".
Bertrand Russell, who could not have been less French, was not talking of Dumas, but he could have been: "Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact." Check out the content of any male conversation. If it isn’t about what has gone wrong, then there is no conversation. If there were no bad news, men would go home, presumably to sleep badly. This is one of the few aphorisms that seems to me to be of universal application.
It is remarkable how poignant the stiff-lipped English can get when they are helpless. When they can help themselves, they help themselves to an empire on which the sun never sets. When they become helpless, they can’t see beyond the White House. Two British politicians experience adolescence and infirmity. John Prescott, the large, bluff, gruff deputy prime minister of Tony Blair’s Britain, recalls, "The 11-plus split me from the girl I carried a torch for. She passed, I failed. She went to grammar school, I sent her a love letter telling her I missed her — she sent it back with the spelling mistakes corrected."
If you are on the edge of tears already, let them flow freely in the company of Alec Douglas Home (pronounced, naturally, Hume), who became Prime Minister of Britain after Harold Macmillan only to hand over power to Harold Wilson and the Labour Party.
To my deafness I’m accustomed,
To my dentures I’m resigned,
I can manage my bifocals,
But O, how I miss my mind.
As Alan Bennett, the acerbic British playwright notes, "In England, you see, age wipes the slate clean… If you live to be 90 in England and can still eat a boiled egg, they think you deserve the Nobel Prize."
Being a nationalist, I began to wonder why an Indian was not being quoted. Even the Chinese got a look-in, albeit in the form of a proverb. ("I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." Very inscrutable.) The book is clearly littered with wisdom from all manner of nationalities. The Chinese have built up a terrifying reputation for wisdom: is our international reputation limited to the Kamasutra, which requires expertise in gymnastics rather than intellect?
Or was the Indian quota filled by Socrates?
Hear anyone over fifty in India and all you hear is moans about the younger generation: they don’t listen, they want everything, they don’t care.
Thank God for such children. India’s future is bright.
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