Quick! Where are my rubbers.
That desperate appeal reads differently depending on where in the world you are now. Indoors, outdoors; upstairs, downstairs; at your writing desk, in your bedroom . . .
Here in the UK we use a rubber to rub out. We know that, in America, a writer who makes an unfortunate mistake might ask for an eraser, whereas – to an American – people make unfortunate mistakes by not using a rubber in the first place. In Canada, on a wet and miserable day when most sensible folk stay indoors, people would call urgently for their rubbers – or they did till recently (see below). In Manitoba or Saskatchewan, such a call would have had someone rush up with a pair of rubber overshoes. Canadian used rubbers to help keep dampness out.
Till late in the 18th century the word rubber meant a wad of cloth used for rubbing. Then stray alternatives crept in: a rubber could mean a sequence of games – at cricket, tennis or the card table. (Why? You tell me.) Then, out of the East came a new material, useful – among other things – for erasing pencil marks on paper. (Till then people used bread pellets to rub out.) Soon the new improved eraser took on the name of its material, Indiarubber, and before long the name was shortened to plain rubber. So far, so logical.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Canadians, who for a fair chunk of the year had to cope with some of the worst weather on the planet, called their wet weather shoes by the name of the material they were made from: ‘Hand me my rubbers, dear’. And Americans, perhaps for reasons of modesty, chose to let the word stand for another, more intimate rubber product. (Though why didn’t they use the word rubber for tyres – or tires, as Americans spell them – or balloons?) And having decided that a rubber was a condom, Americans began to find it exceedingly funny whenever anyone used the word to mean something else. Canadians, close across the border, gave up the fight in the 1980s and went back to saying overshoes.
But not the British. No surrender here. We know a rubber when we see one. So, fellow Briton, next time an American guffaws at the word, point out that a rubber is made of rubber – and we use a rubber to rub out. A perfect and logical use of the English language. It’s our language. We had it first. And we are right.
AND YOU THOUGHT OTHER PEOPLE’S RELIGIONS WERE WEIRD?
Back in the 1850s (when I’d like to think things were different, but perhaps they weren’t) Augustus Hare visited Loreto, a fortress-like church above Santa Casa.
“We were called at five to go to the church. It was still pitch dark but many pilgrims had arrived and waited with us in a corridor till the doors were opened. The scene inside was most singular – the huge expanse quite dark, except where a blaze of light under the dome illuminated the marble casing of the Santa Casa, or where a solitary lamp permitted a picture or image to loom out of the chaos. The great mass of pilgrims knelt together before the shrine, but here and there a desolate figure, with arms outstretched in agonising prayer, threw a long weird shadow down the pavement of the nave, while others were crawling on hands and knees round the side walls of the house, occasionally licking up the sacred dust with their tongues, which left a bloody trail upon the floor.
“At either door of the House the lamplight flashed upon the drawn sword of a soldier, keeping guard to prevent too many people pressing together as they ceaselessly passed in single file upon their knees to gaze for a few seconds upon the rugged walls of unplastered brick, blackened with soot, which they believed to be the veritable walls of the cottage at Nazareth. Here, in strange contrast, the negress statue attributed to saint Luke gleams in a mass of diamonds. At the west end of the House was the window by which the angel entered!
“The collection of jewels and robes in the sacristy was enormous, though the priests lamented bitterly to us over the ravages of the Revolution, and that now the Virgin had only wardrobe sufficient to allow of her changing her dress once instead of three times every day of the year.”
Hare passed on without further comment. I’ll try to do the same.
A TRUE FRIEND
This is my translation of an old text with which I’m sure you will agree – thoughts on friendship which ring as true today as when they were first written. It’s not an obscure or forgotten text (it’s still in print in various translations) but I wonder if you can identify the original author?
Friendship is the one thing that everybody values – which is not the case even with ‘virtue’ since, to many, the claim that one is virtuous is merely giving oneself self-praise. Neither do we all value wealth; many of us look down on it, being content and even proud to take and own little and to dress and eat more frugally than we need. And as for politics – yes, there those who value that enormously but most of us feel that nothing in the world is more empty and trivial than ‘politics’.
So it goes on; whatever you may think desirable, there will be others who find it worthless. Not friendship, though; that is the one thing on which we are all agreed – all of us, whether devoted to politics or science, philosophy or simply getting on with our own life; even those who devote themselves to sensuality and excess, even they think that without friendship there is no life (certainly no nobility in life). One way or the other, friendship penetrates into everybody’s core and affects our progress through this world. There are those who profess to loathe and shun human company (as was the case, we’re told, with Timon of Athens) yet even these poor souls need someone to keep them company, if only someone upon whom they can disgorge their venom and mean temper.
Anyone who doubts this has only to imagine that some god or wicked genie has transported them to a place of perfect solitude in which can be found every material thing we might desire except another human being: who could tolerate such a life? Who wouldn’t lose all taste for material delights? Someone before my time, one Archytas from Tarentum (I have this third hand) said, “If you could ascend into heaven and be shown a clear view of the universe in all its beauty, that wonderful sight would give you little pleasure if you had no one you could tell what you had seen.”
Nature abhors isolation, just as we ourselves need the support and comfort of a close friend. Don’t lose sight of this, even when, as happens sometimes, friendship causes suspicion and offence. Don’t be offended; indulge your friend. The only time a friend should be faced down is when the interests and sincerity of either your friend or yourself is at stake; at such times even a friend may need reproof. When administered in good spirit these remonstrations should be taken in good part although, as Terence warns in Andria, “Compliance gets us friends, plain speaking hate.”
Plain speaking can cause trouble between friends – but complying with their faults will cause worse trouble because by indulging our friends’ faults we let them plunge on into ruin. Yes, some people resent plain speaking but, by so doing, they allow flattery to egg them on to worse. Now of course plain speaking, necessary as it is, must be delivered with deliberation and care; we must remonstrate without bitterness and reprove without insult. Terence again said that although we should and must be courteous we should not be so courteous that we encourage our friend in vice. That is not the act of friendship. And if someone cannot bear to hear the truth even from their friend, they may have, in the end, to be given up. We should remember some wise words from Cato (by no means his only wise words): “You can learn more from your worse enemies than from apparently pleasant friends; enemies speak the truth, while pleasant friends do not.” This creates the strange paradox in which we feel no annoyance when we should feel it, and much when we should not – when we are not annoyed at having committed a fault, but are angry at being reproved for it. On the contrary, we should be grieved at our fault and glad to be corrected.
Is there anything here that is any less true today than it was then? I find it comforting that human nature hasn’t changed – though I am perhaps less comforted that we still need to learn the same lessons we needed then!