One of the best newspapers in the country, The Statesman, is published from Calcutta. It’s a venerable newspaper that was founded in 1875, and I grew up reading it every morning as a schoolboy. In 1982, a new kid on the block appeared: The Telegraph, with a brash young editor called M.J. Akbar and a reporting style to match. I enjoyed reading both newspapers and savored their contrasting approaches, though the upstart did sometimes go overboard in its bid to distance itself from the rather staid, prim, and proper The Statesman.
So when I spotted a book by M.J. Akbar on his travels as a journalist, called Have Pen, Will Travel: Observations of a Globetrotter, I just had to borrow it. It’s a beautifully written account of his travels that combines a journalistic sharp eye on the present with a historian’s awareness of the past, in that he is able to forge links between the present and past of the places he visits. I shall serve up some choice tidbits from this book in subsequent posts, but for now I’d like to draw your attention to a little curiosity in the book’s introduction, where he writes:
The most alluring temptation is certainty. I find it entirely appropriate that convict and conviction share the same root. Those who are too certain become prisoners of the known, unable to expand their vision towards the fascinating curlicues of the unknown. Time can be a merciless enemy of conventional wisdom. I hope you are surprised, or even shocked, by the fact that in the 1930s scientists advised girls to eat cake to lower their urge for sex. Who knows what will be made of today’s ‘truth’ in 2080. Do not for a moment believe that scientists are immune from the influenza of absurdity. Marie Stopes, who gave us birth control and safe abortion [thank you, Marie], studied genetics because she was worried about the ‘decline’ in the genes of the great British race whose genius had created the world’s greatest empire. She also disowned her son because she wanted to marry a girl who wore spectacles. Ogden Nash, I think, noted that men don’t make passes at glasses who wear glasses. This had little to do with beauty; eyes can improve within frames. Maybe those men were disciples of Marie, and bad eyesight denoted a defect in genes, and therefore would affect the genetic purity of the next generation. Perhaps you can now understand why Europe traveled from the 1930s into the 1940s.
This is typical of Akbar’s writing style; whatever you may think of it, there’s never a dull moment. But the reference to Ogden Nash made me pause: I thought it was Dorothy Parker who came up with that witticism about girls who wear glasses, and Google confirms this. I’d read about Dorothy Parker in Frank Muir’s The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose. Muir writes that Dorothy Parker’s repartee epitomized Aristotle’s definition of wit as “educated insult.” Further, “The trouble was that those Americans who worshiped wisecracks assumed that waspish put-downs made at the Alonquin Round Table were the extent of Mrs. Parker’s talent, to her understandable fury.”
And this is Muir’s poignant summing up:
Mrs. Parker, a deeply unhappy woman, cared little about life, and made a tragic muddle of her own but she cared very much indeed about writing and was painstaking and very hard-working in her work.
Her short stories, laconic and accurate portraits of life in urban America in the twenties and thirties, helped further the movement towards freeing the short story from the “burden of plot” and allowing the author to illuminate just one small aspect of human behavior.
Dorothy Parker, rest in peace.