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Lessons in Life






Lessons in Life

          y father once turned to me with a terrible urgency and said, ‘One thing you must always remember in life, my boy: never believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.’ I thought about it for a long while and decided that though probably true, it was a fairly unhelpful piece of advice. For one thing, you can’t go through life mistrusting everything you hear (including father’s advice?) and for another, I didn’t know which half to disbelieve. Good advice isn’t much good when it’s general, only when it’s specific.

         So when a couple of years later he suddenly turned to me and said:  ‘One thing you must remember in life, Miles, is that half the prisons in the country are filled with Old Etonians,’ I felt the quality of his advice was improving. It was getting any more helpful, admittedly, but it was getting more specific, and even if I have subsequently had little to do with prisons or Old Etonians, I feel he was making a valid general point.

         The most specific and helpful advice I ever received was from a maths teacher at school. I remember nothing about his maths; what I recall clearly was his telling us in the middle of algebra that there are certain things everyone should always have about his person: a penknife, a piece of string, a stamp, pencil and paper and a shilling. Since then I have realized that this was excellent advice, especially on the occasions when I have found myself desperately in need of string, pencils, stamps etc. To his list I would add one extra item: a corkscrew, which can easily be combined with the knife.

         Advice is something that usually comes to us unasked for; we are mostly too proud or stupid to ask for it. The one occasion on which I can remember asking, if not begging, for it was when I was lucky enough to meet one of the great writing team of Galton and Simpson. (I think it was Galton. The one without the beard, anyway.) I was very ambitious at the time to write radio comedy, so I asked him clearly and loudly: ’Is there any one thing that you know now through hard experience, that you didn’t know when you started and wished desperately you had known then?’ He thought long and silently about this, and then, making sure I took in every syllable, said: ‘No.’

         Well, I have now come to the stage in life when I should be giving out advice, not asking for it, and I intend to spend the rest of my space here passing on all the lessons I have learned about life. There isn’t much of it. I used to think I inherited my shortage of advice from my father. I know now that, compared to Galton (or maybe Simpson), he was a mine of information.

         1 Never trust a prawn cocktail. It is always nine-tenths lettuce. In fact lettuce cocktail would be a better name for it.

         2Persil may mean washing powder in English, but in French it means parsley. This is of vital importance if you set out to buy washing powder in France.

        3 Answering devices are commonly assumed to be machines which work for you when you are out of the home. The opposite is the truth. People with answering devices switch them on when they are at home so they can pretend to be out. They listen to the person recording the message and, if it’s someone they want to talk to, take over in person. If not, not. Generally speaking, the telephone is less efficient for getting in touch than letters. I have often spent days trying to ring someone when a letter on the first day would have done the trick.

         4If you want to communicate with children, never ask questions which can be answered with a Yes or No, because that is what they will answer. Children, like water, always take the easiest route. The following conversation always takes place between me and my children in the evening…
                  ‘How as school today?’
                  ‘What did you do?’
                  …even on days when they have been beaten up or lost their best friend. It took me years to work out that the only valuable questions were ones like ‘Who did you hate most at school today?’ or ‘What was the nicest thing you did at school?’ If in despair at ever communicating, ask them about what they had for lunch.

         5Purchasing a bag of crisps is the most expensive way ever invented of buying potatoes. (Though it’s the cheapest way of buying grease.)

         6Crumpling an empty crisp packet is the most time-wasting thing you can ever do. Crisp packets are now made of a kind of paper which is designed to resume its original shape in about forty seconds.

         7Never try to tear off the next square of lavatory paper with one hand. Goaded into motion, the roll will start unrolling and billow across the floor for about forty seconds.

         8Lavatory rolls never roll back as straight as they came out; they end up like a badly bandaged wrist.

         9Good musicians tend to be bad dancers.

        10Never choose anything in a restaurant with four or more ingredients listed. Anything cooked in wine and cream sauce with mushrooms, onions and tomatoes, sounds fun; all you get is a mush. And restaurants with short menus are always better than those with long ones.

        11When in France, don’t mention Sean Connery. His name is rather rude in French. The same goes for the word ‘mist’ in Germany; hence the poor sales there of Irish Mist and the Silver Mist.

        12When a small line of holes is punctured across a piece of paper and called perforation, that line of holes becomes the strongest part of the paper. That is why cheques tear across the middle and stamps usually have corners missing.

        13Barman, like children and water, take the easiest route. That means serving the first person that catches their eye. And that means, for you, always standing next to the person who is currently being served.

        14And lastly, a piece of advice I formulated very recently. At the same time as my last piece in Ms London, actually. If you ever write for a magazine, always ask to see the drawing of you they intend to use. It might be a drawing of someone you’ve never seen in your life.

Ms London (1991?)



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