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How to be Wise






Today’s master class is in how to be wise.

We all strive after wisdom. We would all like to be thought of as being wise. Wisdom has never really proved to be of much help to anyone (nobody ever said, ‘I can’t open this jar of marmalade - you do it – you’re wiser than me) and yet as we all get older, we would like to think we were acquiring wisdom.

But why? Is it really wise to be wise?

When the revolution comes, isn’t it always the wise ones who get the chop first?

Perhaps it’s more sensible to be unwise.

But here we are, already getting bogged down in petty arguments, and it is never wise to do that.

So what is it wise to do?

The first step to wisdom is to look wise. This does not mean to grow your silvery hair long. If that were so, we would think that Peter Stringfellow was wise. The art in looking wise is to keep still as much as possible. When people ask awkward questions, do not answer immediately. Do not move. Look as if you have heard it all before. Smile to yourself and shake you head slightly. The wisest thing of all is not to answer the question at all, but to say something wise.

What is something wise?

Something wise is a statement which, if made by a mere mortal, would sound like a vague generalisation, but which, when made by a wise person, sounds wise.

Here are some sample pieces of wisdom.

‘You should never fight the same war twice.’

‘All men end up looking like their dogs. All women end up looking like their favourite handbag.’

‘Why, when people tell us they have become a grandfather, do we say “Well done!”? No-one deserves credit for becoming a grand-parent.’

‘There is no such thing as a scientific fact, only an improved theory.’

‘Give me that jar of marmalade. I’ll get the top off for you.’

Imagine a twenty-year-old saying any of these things. How poncy it would sound. But when you or I say it, how wise!

Do you have to be old to be wise?

Far from it!

Old people have a distinct disadvantage when it comes to wisdom, and that is that they have been saying the same thing for the previous forty years, and nobody thought they were wise back then.

The best thing to do is think of wise things as you grow up and not say them then, but save them till you are old.

If you cannot think of anything wise, it is just as good to take a conventional piece of wisdom and improve it. For far too long we have been saying that an optimist is someone who says a glass is half full and a pessimist someone who says it is half empty. It’s clever but everyone knows it, so it is no longer clever. The man who could come up with a smarter, cooler definition, would be wise indeed. Other sayings, which are ripe for modernisation are:

‘Somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan . . .’

‘The light at the end of the tunnel is only a train coming the other way’ and

‘It takes one to know one.’

I am often asked if it is good to be wise after the event. Well, it is certainly good practice. And it is very satisfying to say: ‘I told you so,’ if you can find a better way of saying it.

But it is even better to be wise before the event, if you can find a better way of saying: ‘I am telling you so now.’

Better still is to prevent the event altogether.

If only we had given up the Dome in time.

If only we had not bid for the 2012 Olympics.

If only you had given me that jar of marmalade. I would have shown you that the lid often gets stuck with dried marmalade, and all you need to do is rap it lightly but smartly on a hard object, which will break the crust inside and allow you to unscrew it easily.


I’ve broken the jar.


Independent 7th February 2007