August 20, 2004

Negative reaction

There's a passage I often quote from an essay I often quote: George Orwell's comments on Cyril Connolly's Enemies Of Promise in his essay on Henry Miller, Inside The Whale.

Towards the end of [the book] there occurs an interesting and revealing passage. The first part of the book, is, more or less, an evaluation of present-day literature. Mr Connolly belongs exactly to the generation of the writers of 'the movement', and with not many reservations their values are his values. It is interesting to notice that among prose-writers he admires chiefly those specialising in violence - the would-be tough American school, Hemingway, etc. The latter part of the book, however, is autobiographical and consists of an account, fascinatingly accurate, of life at a preparatory school and Eton in the years 1910-20. Mr Connolly ends by remarking:

Were I to deduce anything from my feelings on leaving Eton, it might be called The Theory of Permanent Adolescence. It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development.

I often cite the passage to discuss why Oxford University has such a hold on the people who went there, both on those who liked the place and benefitted from their time there, and on those like myself to whom neither applies: that in abstracting people from the world outside, both socially and intellectually, at such an important time in their lives, it produces an intensity of experience, and a relationship to the institution involved, that can never leave you and never stop affecting you. In my experience only the Roman Catholic Church and marriage (formal or otherwise) are capable of producing such a strong attachment and such a permanent resentment. Perhaps that's why so many Oxbridge alumni find themselves giving so much money to them - and why some others, including some known to me personally, refuse even to discuss the place, or even sometimes, to hear it mentioned.

But the follow-up interests me too. Orwell goes on:

When you read the second sentence in this passage, your natural impulse is to look for the misprint. Presumably there is a 'not' left out, or something. But no, not a bit of it! He means it!

This springs to mind quite often, when listening to senior management or company spokesmen. My door is (not) always open. We are (not) extremely concerned by the bad experience you had in using National Express coaches. Or any sentence that includes the word committed or appears in a mission statement.

There's a variant on the theme which observes that any political statement is meaningless unless you can imagine somebody saying the opposite. For instance, in the last Presidential election Al Gore made the bold statement:

I am for the people!

As I recall being said at the time, you can scarcely imagine anybody in a democratic election, or indeed at any other time, saying I am against the people! (Not that it was a particularly empty remark by the standards of Al Gore, or by the standards of American Presidential elections, but there you go. The most remarkable aspect of the current election is that the Democrats have managed to pick a candidate so turgid he makes Al Gore look like Abbie Hoffman. Which mention brings to mind the title of Hoffman's autobiography, Soon To be A Major Motion Picture. That phrase passes the same test of meaninglessness - who would ever use the term Soon To Be A Minor Motion Picture?)

I digress. The molehill that brought to birth this mountainous chain of thought was simply and trivially this. I was walking along Effra Road in Brixton this morning when I saw a personalised number plate that puzzled me. It read:


But where's the DON'T?


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