BLTC Press Titles

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The Haunted Bookshop

Christopher Morely

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde

The Characters of Theophrastus


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

Books and bookmen

by Ian Maclaren


hat below his chair, looking with awful, immovable countenance into the eternities. It seemed irreverent to speak to any one of the graven images, but the poor minister required to know something about the man who had died, and so he ventured to ask the figure next him in a whisper what the deceased had been? Whereupon the figure answered with a loud, clear voice, " I dinna ken myself, for I jest came here wi' a friend," and then, addressing a still more awful figure opposite, and in a still more aggressive tone, " Jeems, what was the corpse to a trade?" After which the trembling minister wished he had left the matter alone.

Will a medical man be acceptable to that large class of patients who love to speak of their ailments and have nothing wrong with them, if they discover that he is laughing at them, and especially if he allows himself the relief of sarcasm? Is it not better for his income, if not for his science, that he should be able to listen with a murmur of sympathy to old ladies of both sexes describing their symptoms, and prescribe the most harmless of mixtures with an owl-like countenance, beseeching them not to lose heart, even in such desperate circumstances, and departing with the assurance that he is at their service night and day, and must be sent for instantly if the coloured water gives no relief? They say two Roman Augurs could not look at one another without laughing, but how much more ought to be pitied the consultant and the general practitioner who meet over the case of a hypochondriac?

I challenge any one to mention a politician of our time who, on the whole, has not lost, rather than gained, through humour; and I fancy no man should be more afraid of this tricky gift than a leader of the democracy. Had Mr. Gladstone possessed the faintest sense of the ridiculous amid the multitude of his rich and brilliant talents, he had not been able to address a crowd from the window of his railway carriage, and receive a gift of a plaid, or a walking-stick, or, if my memory does not fail me, a case of marmalade, until his outraged fellow-passengers, anxious to make connections, insisted the train should go on, and it departed to the accompaniment of the statesman's eloquent peroration. But it was just because Mr. Gladstone could do such things, and was always in the most deadly

earnest, that the people trusted him and hung upon his words. Nothing was so dangerous a snare to Lord Beaconsfield as his abounding and delightful humour, for it lodged in the minds of the English people a suspicion which never departed, that that brilliant man, who had been so f arseeing in his ideas and anticipations of the trend of events, was little else than a charlatan and a scorner; and I fancy that Lord Salisbury's most devoted followers would have been glad if some of his mordant jests had never passed beyond his study. Is there not another most accomplished and attractive personality in politics who has forfeited the chance of supreme authority, partly no doubt by a pronounced individualism, but partly also by a graceful lightness of touch and allusion which are not judged consistent with that fierce sincerity which has been the strength of his party? Toleration is never without a flavour of humour, but humour is an absolute disability to fanaticism. With this genial sense of humanity no man can be a fanatic, and in a recent book on French crime it is frequently mentioned that the principal miscreants were intense persons with no humour, so that in this

branch of life, quite as much as in politics, the humorous person is severely handicapped. One feels as if his money and his life were safe in the hands of a person who can enjoy an honest jest, but this may only prove that the person is lacking in that determination and enterprise which are conditions of practical success in a strenuous modern community.

So far as a layman in such affairs can judge, humour is alien to the business mind, and would forfeit any character for stability. The looker-on, who, of course, may be a very foolish person, is amazed at the substantial success of dull men and the respect in which they are held, and he is equally amazed at the suspicion with which bright men, whose conversation sparkles and enlivens, are regarded and the slight esteem in which they are held. The former may be wooden to the last point of exasperation, but his neighbours pronounce him to be solid, and thrust him into directorships, chairmanships, the magistracy and Parliament, and after a long course of solidity and success, with increasing woodenness, he will likely reach the House of Lords. But the other man, with whom you spent so pleasant an evening, and who is as much at home among books as " a stable-boy among horses," is apt to be judged light metal — a person who may know his Shakespeare, but could not be trusted with things of value like money. There are times when one loses heart and almost concludes that the condition of tangible success in English life is to be well-built, giving a pledge to fortune in a moderate stoutness, to have a solemn expression of face, suggesting the possession of more wisdom than is likely to have been given to any single person, to be able to hold one's tongue till some incautious talker has afforded an idea, and to have the gift of oracular commonplace. If to such rare talents can be added an impressive clearance of the throat, there are few positions in Church or State, short of the highest, to which their owner may not climb. My advice, therefore, to younger men, if indeed I am expected to give advice to anybody, is to congratulate themselves that by the will of Providence they have been cleansed from this dangerous quality, or, if this be not their fortunate case, to hide the possession of humour behind a mask of sustained impenetrable common sense.

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