Let us now praise unfamous men

A little praise can go a surprisingly long way. "Little" being the operative word. Too much praise may be counterproductive, even if merited. Dr. Johnson put it well and wittily: "Praise, like gold and diamonds, owes its value only to its scarcity."

As an Englishman living in Scotland for long enough now, surely, to have formed an opinion, I would venture to suggest that the vigorously English Johnson must have had some Scottish blood in him. In Scotland, praise is kept locked up and saved for special occasions.

Without question Johnson would have disputed such an outrageous claim on his ancestry as a hint of Scottish genealogy. When he traveled to Scotland, even though he was in the company of James Boswell, who was a Scot, he was not notably polite about Scots and Scotland. "But, Sir, let me tell you," Johnson exclaimed, "the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!"

I can't agree. I wouldn't (for the sake of marital harmony if nothing else) dare to agree. Scots in my experience are not what caricatures of them often mindlessly report. They are not mean, but extremely generous. They are not dour, but very friendly.

All the same, two things I would say are true about Scots in a general way. Their native language contains an electrifying affluence of percussive words and phrases designed to insult. And they really are parsimonious, or at best succinct, when it comes to giving praise.

A case in point. A play I was in a while ago was seen by my wife and her aunt. I think they accompany each other to my amateur efforts on the boards out of a kind of affectionate loyalty, or an indulgence of my inexplicable descent into second childhood, but between them they remain clear-eyed and critically sharp. They are both Scots and one can expect from them straightforward honesty. Flattery would simply not ring true. So after this particular play, when I returned home, my Best Critic, sitting up in bed with a book, offered without much prompting her assessment of the performance. I should explain that I had a small role in this play, but I convinced myself that it is indeed true that no part is a poor part and all should be played to the full. So I was modestly enthusiastic about my rendering of this one.

"The man in the lead role - what's his name? - he was very good," she said.

"What did you think of his hair?" I asked.

"His hair?"

"Did you realize it was a wig?"

"Well! I'd never have guessed. And the girl who played the tarty woman -"

"Clare."

"Ah, Clare, yes - she was the best. Really excellent. But...."

Suffice it to say, no one was left entirely unscathed, and a few would have had their breakfasts spoiled had they read her comments in the morning papers. I listened and nodded and agreed and now and then defended, and finally, when she had assessed all of my fellow players, she returned to her book, job done.

Except that her job, I couldn't help noticing, wasn't quite done. She had said nothing at all about my performance. I could have let the matter rest. But as Henry Ward Beecher helpfully puts it, "A man who does not love praise is not a full man." I headed for the bathroom. But then I thought, no, I'll risk my self-respect and not let her get away with it.

So I turned around and, poking my head around the door, mischievously put her on the spot. "You had something to say about everyone in the play ... except me."

She looked up. With the most negligible intake of breath and without the slightest telltale emphasis she replied, "Oh, you were fine," and returned to her book.

This almost neutral remark left me magnificently unconvinced. I knew she couldn't (or at least I thought she couldn't) have said, "Oh, you were terrible." And I didn't expect her to say, all in one gushing breath, "Darling you were amazingly unmitigatedly gloriously wonderful you should immediately audition for the National Theatre." But even her level-toned, judicious statement was infused with an infuriating ambiguity.

In the dressing room next day, I mentioned this wifely critique to another actor. She said (being a Scot, translating for an Englishman): "But that's very high praise!"

I felt better.

Then came the next play, and again I played a small part, and again I gave it everything I could muster, and again my wife and her aunt dutifully attended. Once again my wife was a-book and a-bed when I returned home after the performance.

"That was the most terrible, frightful, boring play ever," she said. "And the acting! - you couldn't hear half of them. The lighting was terrible. There was no story. The jokes weren't funny. And the theater was freezing. And the play, if you can call it a play, went on and on and on. I thought it would never end...." She paused. Then she said that her aunt's comment was "Well ... that was ... an interesting experience. Tell Christopher that he was by far the best."

I glowed in the warmth of that complimentary message (even if her aunt's niece had not actually reiterated it) for a day and a half.

And then it struck me. I might have been "the best" but - comparisons being odorous, as someone once said - only because everyone else in the play was so improbably bad.

And then again I thought, "No, no. 'Praise is always pleasing, let it come from whom, or upon what account it will.' " And I added: "What was true for Montaigne is good enough for me. Enjoy the praise. All, after all, is vanity."

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