Having a go at it

Like most of us I have, over the years, scratched deeply at the surface of a number of mind-improving activities, courses, sports, and hobbies. My leaning bookshelf, the only result of "Be Your Own Carpenter in Twenty Easy Lessons," bears testimony to the breadth and variety of the branches of the Tree of Knowledge I have endeavoured to cut off. From 'A' -- the Principles of Accountancy -- down to 'Z' -- Elements of Zoology, with pauses in between, I have tried to be what all the course advertisements referred to as "one of the select few who will be leaders in your community" or, as my brother would observe in his crude way, a "sucker for a sale."

The courses I recall best have always been those in which the word 'easy' has appeared. The Principles of Easy Automobile Maintenance ("Never be stuck/Don't leave it to luck"), The Classical Guitar Made Easy, Easy Judo for Beginners, and the languages -- German (and Italian, Portuguese, French, even -- so help me -- Japanese) in Thirteen Easy Lessons. And here I would ask why always thirteen, and why always "easy." I wish I knew.

Incidentally, the more percipient of my readers will note the Socratic touch to my selection, a combination of athleticism and aesthetics, which that gentleman said was the sign of the complete man. And I would like to add that at last I know who it was who offered him the hemlock.

If there has been any recurrent theme in my mind-bending lurch through life, it has been that of languages. I don't know why this is so but I suspect that it was of feeling of guilt engendered by my upbringing, which occurred in those days when any honest Englishman expected the world to learn his language and be proud to do it. (This thought, incidentaly, never applied to Americans who, it was understood, did their best with it and were more or less intelligible.)

Take the case of German. "German in Three Months of 13 Easy Lessons" it said on the cover. With that simplicity of character my friends have come to know and love, I assumed that the thirteen lessons were that number of hours spread over three months. And did not the preface put it that "a German child of five will already have mastered the German in this book -- why not you?" Why not, indeed, I'll tell you why not.

In the first place this child of five did not go out to work. This child of five -- to whom I rapidly took a dislike and whom I felt would be better occupied playing football or making Volkswagens or something useful -- was was not even married. He did not have to replace plugs in the wall or car at need. He paid no income tax and probably had few social obligations. Therefore, there seemed to me that he had litle else to do with his time than learn German. So be it. When it came to the point, I discovered that these thirteen lessons could be done in three months if one devoted a twenty hour day to the business. Still and all, as we say in my part of the country, I can, on demand, ask my way to the lift in German, French, Italian, Portuguese and -- a quirky sidetrack this -- in Latin. And much good has it done this Englishman over the years.

While languages have been, in the vile jargon of today, an "on-going station" this has not been the case with my Classical Guitar Lessons and the Judo Course. Both were embarked upon under a misapprehension.From the ages of seven to fifteen I had failed miserably to learn the violin. (However, I would like to put it on record that Menuhin and I both gave on performance in the same month of the same year in my home town of Hastings, Sussex, England. I played "In a Persian Market" by Ketelbey. I don't know what Menuhin did, and I bet he wasn't standing on a table in order that he could be seen by the music teacher's audience). It will be observed that my violin experience bit deep. Yet to this day, I do not understand how I came to believe that the guitar would be an easier instrument to learn. It is obvious to all that violinists merely grab a piece of wood in their right hand while guitarists grow their fingernails long and keep them moving all the time. Combining this with the Juco Course (a birthday present from my wife, if you will!) was as incompatible as trying to swim and write a letter at the same time. Besides, if I had done my research properly, I would have discovered that few classical guitarists do judo as well. Trying to serve these two masters put me in the good graces of neither. My 200 -pound judo instructor took a dim view of the length of my right hand fingernails (kept long for plucking the guitar strings), while the guitar teacher, a somewhat moody White Russian emigre, appeared to feel that a hand wrapped in lint after being trodden on by fellow pupils at the judo academy, was not good preparation for Carnegie Hall. Still, I did learn to pick out "Greensleeves" and at the end, he would sigh and note "Ah yes! Greensleeves, vun off your English peasant zongs . . . ver' sad." I always presumed he was referring to the melody and not my performance but I have since had some doubts.

In subsequent years the judo instructor became a very important man in the International Judo Federation, while the guitar instructor gave up teaching and went into acting and has since become a familiar face in British and European movies playing recalcitrant Russian commissars for the most part. And I did once see him play the piano teacher and, so help me, he sighed and said "ver' sad." I expect it was one of those movies in which the actors make up the lines as they go along.

So I have come to think that I am really one of life's basic trainers of men. When they have tried to teach me their skill, they know that nothing is going to be quite so difficult ever again and move on to conquer the commanding heights.

Next week, with winter upon us, I am starting a short "Electrocis for the Household" in yes, you've guessed it, thirteen easy lessons at the night school. When I've finished with him, I expect the instructor will go on to do something great. Like discovering the electric light bulb, I shouldn't wonder.

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