October 8, 2013

Knowing when not to talk

I WAS ASKED the other day if I would care to give a talk to our local Sail and Power Squadron. I said, as I almost always do in similar circumstances, that I would not. I know full well that there are sailors there, and many of them, who know far more about the sea and sailing than I do. I would be an imposter among the truly knowledgeable. And besides, I am a wretched speaker.  I have the kind of mind that needs time to select words, to wrestle them from their hiding places in my mind, and to test them for aptness before I let them loose in public. For this reason, I prefer to write. And write rather slowly, at that. Then, if I find my offering lacking in appeal, I  have the option of seasoning it with a dash of Attic salt.

This request reminded me of another journalist with the same problem. He wrote a weekly column for The Star, a London newspaper, during World War I, and was known simply by his pen name, Alpha of the Plough. In his book, Leaves in the Wind (E. P. Dutton & Co., 1919), he republished a delightful column that describes my situation precisely. Here is a salient extract:

“THE OTHER DAY I went to dine at a house known for the brilliancy of the conversation. I confess that I found the experience a little trying. In conversation I am naturally rather a pedestrian person . . . I do not want to be expected to be brilliant or to be dazzled by verbal pyrotechnics.

“But at this dinner table the conversation flashed around me like forked lightning. It was so staccato and elusive that it seemed like talking in shorthand. It was a very fencing match of wit and epigram.

“I thought of a bright thing to say now and then, but I was always so slow in getting away from the mark that I never got it out. It had grown stale and out of date before I could invest it with the artistic merit that would enable it to appear in such brilliant company.

“And so, mentally out of breath, I just sat and felt old-fashioned and slow, and tried to catch the drift of the sparking dialogue. But I looked as wise as possible, just to give the impression that nothing was escaping me, and that the things I did not say were quite worth saying. That was Henry Irving’s way when the conversation got beyond him. He just looked wise and said nothing.

“There are few things more enviable than the quality of good talk, but this was not good talk. It was clever talk, which is quite a different thing. There was no 'stuff' in it. It was like trying to make a meal off the east wind, which it resembled in its hard brilliancy and lack of geniality. Wit alone never made good conversation. It is like mint sauce without the lamb.”

 Today’s Thought
The American’s conversation is much like his courtship. . . . He gives an inkling and watches for a reaction; if the weather looks fair, he inkles a little more.
— Donald Lloyd, “The Quietmouth American,” Harper’s, Sep 63

Judge: “What is your name and occupation?”
Prisoner: “My name is Sparks, I’m an electrician.”
Judge: “What is the charge?”
Prisoner: “Battery.”
Judge: “Officer, place this man in a dry cell.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Chris Harris said...

Knowing how difficult it is to put together interesting squadron meetings, I'm disappointed that you would not help them out. I've always wondered if you were ever a member of that organization.
I'm already excluded from the silent fan club, so I don't mind saying that I've learned many things from your writing over the years and I would never consider you an impostor.

biglilwave said...

That was a masterly written blog entry that was both snarky and humble at the same time. I thank you for that.
I've always found that the best conversations I've had are with myself.