I always wanted to belong to such a society

The other day I was glancing through the list of societies in our S-Z telephone directory. They were a tribute to the breadth of interests of one's fellow men. Near the head comes the Society for Reassurance, which, sadly, appears to be financial rather than religious, while at the end comes Society Sauna, which must be both exclusive and relaxing. I notice that the Society of Investment Analysts is cheek by jowl with the Society of Launderers, which excites unworthy suspicions. But, sadly, nowhere did I find any reference to the British Snail-Watching Society, and I must assume that it is no longer in existence.

I well recall my first meeting with the British Snail-Watching Society, that magnificent organization. Some readers may be a little surprised to know that it was founded by an editor of The Home Forum in the unregenerate days before he attained such respectability. I know he would have liked anonymity, but he used to sign his articles on this page with the letters P. J. H.-H.

I found out about it when he invited us to dinner one day, after which he took me into his study and showed me the letterhead of the society. What, I asked, did it do? He looked at me as if doubting the wisdom of having had me at his dinner table. ''It watches British snails,'' he replied sternly.

''Does it?'' I said, adding in an attempt to reach the deeper truths, ''Why?''

''Because,'' he replied austerely, ''they need watching.''

Of course; ask a silly question and you'll get etc., etc.

''Does it,'' I tried, attempting to make conversation as one does in such situations, ''watch anything else?''

''Certainly not,'' he said. ''It does not watch worms, sea gulls, frogs, spiders, or flies. It watches British snails.''

''Ah,'' I said, now wondering in my turn if I had been wise to accept the dinner invitation. ''Of course,'' I said, ''it's all clear now.'' I was then elected a member of the British Snail-Watching Society on a life membership basis. One of the attractions of the society was that there was no annual subscription, no annual general meeting, no conferences - and no correspondence was answered unless the founder and chairman felt like it, which, he assured me, was not often, since he was busy with other matters such as earning a living. I had always wanted to belong to that sort of society.

''In fact,'' he said, ''there are one or two letters which I think I will have to answer - unless, as the newest member, you would like to do it for me?'' I pleaded ignorance of the subject, and he then decided to pick out a few letters and answer them on the spot.

One was from a man in Shanghai who wrote to say he had noticed that Chinese snails resembled British snails; in fact, they might be expatriate British snails, in which case could he form an affiliated branch?

No, said the chairman, he could not, adding for my information that this, possibly, might be the thin end of the wedge.

Another was from a man in Colorado. It turned out that the founder had rather a weakness for Colorado on the grounds that it was the home state of the famous Apache chief Cochise, whom he admired, and the setting for John Wayne films, which he liked. The correspondent stated that Colorado was very hot and there weren't many snails, but he was looking. Could he join?

''We must,'' said the founder to me, ''do all we can to encourage the American Colonies to return to their true allegiance. We will invite him to start an American branch.''

Then we quickly disposed of a professor with an Antarctic expedition - ''there are no British snails in the Antarctic, nor likely to be'' - and a Dane who wrote to point out that King Canute, a Dane like himself, had once ruled England and therefore, by implication, Danish snails were British by conquest. The illogic of this appealed to the founder, and permission was given for a Danish branch or, alternatively, for the writer to visit England and watch British snails, provided only that ''you don't go around boasting about King Canute.''

Well, for many years I conducted, like many others, an intermittent correspondence on this subject with P. J. H.-H. - that lovely man who had so many more serious interests, including this paper - and I would almost doubt that there are any left with his whimsical sense of humor. But then the other day, I read that there is a man in New York who is forming a Society to Hunt Crocodiles in the New York Sewers. So the approach lives on. I shall not be joining. I don't mind the crocodiles, you understand, but I draw the line at the New York sewers.

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