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The very fine art of being bemused

By Peter ffrench-Hodges / November 24, 1982



We were waiting at Jersey airport for our flight back to London. There was a storm on and I was wandering about, wondering how long it would last. One of our party, a German radio reporter, suddenly called me over and, when she had my attention, told me that she had finally decided whom I reminded her of. ''A periphery character from The Memory of Times Past;m it's your bemused expression, '' she stated.

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I was sorry that I did not remind her of a main character in literature, but then I reflected that heroes don't normally go about looking bemused unless they are comedy personalities like Dornford Yates' Berry. The Scarlet Pimpernel doesn't count because as the languid baronet he is disguising his true personality. It would have been clever casting to have put James Stewart in the role; the master of bemusement. He could have rescued all those French aristocrats with the air of not quite knowing what was going on, yet without making a single mistake.

I have an American friend not unlike James Stewart in his role as Harvey; possibly the most bemused person I have ever met. I'm always expecting him to make some giant mistake like getting on the plane to Belgrade instead of Belfast , but he never does. He was driving me in New York once, when we were overtaken on the wrong side by an ancient Cadillac. As the overtaking car pulled over, it clipped a Plymouth coming in the opposite direction and this set off a series of encounters. Sparks were flying everywhere and it seemed that whatever evasive action we took we would be in trouble. In the event we took none but quietly drove through the debris. No one had been hurt. I glanced back at the profusion of fractured fenders and buckled bonnets with amazement. For some reason we too were without a scratch and without even the last-minute swerve which so often saves bemused drivers and old-fashioned pilots from disaster in films.

In public life bemusement is out of fashion. Bemused generals are not shown going off to battle, nor bemused heads of state to summit conferences. Harold Macmillan was Britain's last bemused Prime Minister and many think the best in this century. He always said his favourite bedtime reading was Trollope in whose novels nearly all the good characters are bemused and most of the bad over-alert.

My American friend telephoned me from New York the other day and for a while we continued a conversation we had been having months before. Then he asked, ''Look, am I phoning you or are you phoning me?'' I told him that he was telephoning me. ''Oh well, in that case I'll have to phone you back. I've just been reading Proust and Trollope alternatively and I'm getting a little confused.''

I just thought he sounded slightly more than ordinarily bemused.