Friday 1 January 2010

How to live

In place of resolutions, some wisdom words from those who’ve gone before:

Famously, Nelson Algren: ‘Never play cards with any man named Doc. Never eat at any place called Mom’s. And never, never, sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.’

My head teacher’s three sentences of advice to the school leavers, year after year, to set us up for life: ‘When you shake a man’s hand, always take a firm grip. When you see a funeral passing by, stand to attention. You’ll go a long way in life without finding a better drink than lemonade.’

This is all, of course, pretty useless. And the good advice, which deals with the matter head-on (‘To thine own self be true’, etc), so often comes from meddling fools that we walk away. (The David Tennant Hamlet, by the way, on TV over Christmas, I thought terrific.) Maybe the old poetry-workshop mantra, ‘show not tell’, is apposite.

Also remembered, and probably more worth remembering than most of the above, this indirect advice from a man* who taught me at university: ‘I never review a book by a friend or colleague.’

* Hugh Sykes Davies. I recently stumbled upon this very fine memoir of HSD by George Watson. He was variously a Surrealist, a Communist, a motorcyclist, a fishmonger, a Structuralist, a wine-maker; he knew Breton, Dali, Eliot, Wittgenstein, Keynes, and drank and played pingpong with Malcolm Lowry; he was married five times (the fifth wife was also the third). ‘He loved doing things he could not quite do, such as writing fiction or playing the accordion.’ Wonderful sentence. I wish I had known him longer and better.

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