The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 6 (October 1, 1929)
The Way we Go — Ins and Outs of Life
Nothing sadder can be said about a man than these words: “He's losing grip”—losing grip of himself, losing grip of his work. When the grip goes, everything goes. When the loss of grip spreads among individuals the national grip ceases—and other nations take hold. Thus it was with the Roman Empire. Many causes have been mentioned for its decline and fall, but there is no need to argue about more than one cause—loss of grip. The Romans let go, let things slide—and they slid.
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Perhaps the main difference between modern civilisation and the culture of ancient Greece is in the multiplicity of interests in 1929 A.D. Of course the great majority of those interests are fussy or trivial. As soon as marvellous machinery, mass production, and all kinds of industrial efficiency and what-not do something which should ease the cost of living, new interests are invented to increase the white man's burden.
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In Bacon's essay, “Of Youth and Age,” first published three centuries ago, one sees much that can apply well enough to men of to-day. Here are some of the shrewd philosopher's comments:—
“Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold, stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles which they have chanced on absurdly.”
“Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success. Certainly it is good to compound employments of both (youth and age): for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both.”
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“Where no counsel is, the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety,” says one of the Scriptural proverbs. In the light of modern experience one may, without irreverence, suggest “confusion” for “safety,” with the support of that homely proverb: “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”
Of course the mind of the great Dr. Samuel Johnson ranged over the matter of “multitude of counsellors” in the conversations which the indefatigable Boswell inflicted upon him. “Providence,” the burly sage said, “has wisely ordered that the more numerous men are, the more difficult it is for them to agree in anything, and so they are governed.” People may argue about Johnson's adverb, “wisely,” but there can be no question about the difficulty of agreement among numbers.
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Many a shrewd, keen, business man has been a sad disappointment on a committee concerned with things outside the range of his workaday routine. A talent for tallow may not be helpful for town-planning. New movements call for initiative and constructive imagination in which plenty of successful business men are deficient, except in their own special fields of operations. The daily touch with matter-of-factness—the cult of exactness and “tin-tackness”—gets the mind so inured to the hard-pan of things as they are that it cannot spring to the making of new policies or the shaping of new ideals in human affairs. Of course there are numerous notable exceptions in New Zealand as elsewhere, and one hopes that the exceptions will multiply, for the live business man, when he does have a hobby for the community's benefit, does get things done. The ideal committee for any good purpose will have a number of such men, each taking a task, each working in with the others, all stimulated and encouraged by a worthy chief.page 16
A large vested interest in the world (all worlds) is Science. It is not many years since science was the Cinderella of the human family, but she has left the ashes, and she dictates to the prince to-day. Even now one may see an occasional joke about the absent-minded scientist—but such jesting tends to be absurd. Science has truly done much for humanity, but could do more if it gave more attention to humanity and less to inanity—speculation about the fate of the world billions of years hence and much other pother about similar futilities. Science is apt to think and do too much as science merely for science's sake. This is known as “pure science,” which may be sometimes pure nonsense. Science has to get a little more eyesight, a little more common sense, and much less mumbo-jumbo.
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The telephone is supposed to be a blessing to mankind. Is it, really? I see before me the hard dial—the cruel lying face—of an automatic. Yesterday I nearly poured into that copper countenance the little museum of curios which I use as paper-weights. Oh, the good language squandered to give scant relief, because nobody could hear it in the far beyond. No careful working of that dial could get a response from the number desired. It was the Tower of Babel over again. I wanted a plumber, and I got a professor of psychology. I rang for a florist, and was bumped into a pork-butcher. I sought a poet, and I found a haberdasher—and so the diabolical business went on. When the expert came up to the wreck of me and resuscitated me and the devil's instrument, he genially explained that it was very easy for the old dial to play monkey-tricks. It just needed a little dust under its cheeks or its chin to put it in the mood for practical jokes. Another job for science, which should soon have enough to do to unhitch itself from the stars for a few days and link up with atoms that matter.
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Food theorists have mesmerised masses of the public by persistence. Some years ago the Daily Mail felt that the traditional beef and beer were not strong enough foundations for Britain's greatness, and decided that the nation must save itself from horrible decadence by eating brown bread (the whole wheatmeal loaves) every day. The campaign was well run, and, of course, it could only have one end—a submission of the public to its daily dose of brown bread, until the Daily Mail became bored with the business, and turned its thoughts to prizes for collections of British butterflies and butterscotch.
Some expressive new words are evolved in the United States of America, but unfortunately they are soon abused and lose their original point. Take “goop” for example. Apparently it was applied, at first, to the persons who licked a finger to turn the leaves of books. It is easy to believe that the word “goop” came from the sound of a thumb walloping across a thick lip. But the fold of “goops” became as wide as Thackeray's field of snobs. Indeed, somebody wrote a little book entitled: “The Goops, and How to be One.”
Then the sickening “stunt” which was stale long before the Great War began! This abominable word did not fill any need; it simply strode over better words.
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Will man ever return to the gay plumage of the Elizabethan, Stuart, Queen Anne and Hanoverian periods? Why in nature is man to-day the only male that is not more attractively arrayed than the female? Will he go on for ever with the mild-toned tubes of tweed and the skimpiness of bobtailed coats? Will not some high-placed brave reactionary restore the old-time colours, ruffles, and flounces? No doubt some of the “shieks” have hopes still that a member of the Royal Family may set new styles of brightness in men's dress, to the great delight of milliners and drapers, as well as tailors, but such a possibility is too slight to cause excitement. A few feeble legs are hidden in Oxford bags, but these things are merely silly, nothing better than sloppy, floppy tubes, not nearly as graceful as the ordinary stovepipe styles.
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Sometimes gloomy prophets, hesitating to fix a date for the destruction of the whole earth, content themselves with a prediction of the ruin of a part—merely a country or two. For example, about thirty-six years ago, many credulous inhabitants of the North Island of New Zealand were alarmed by a crazy statement that it would sink wholly into the sea on or before a specified date. Similar silly forecasts for New Zealand have been made since then, but this country—one of the oldest in the world, as geologists count time—continues to hold its place firmly in the rolling globe. New Zealand need not worry about the untruthful nickname “Shaky Isles,” which appears occasionally in Australian papers, when a report of an earth-quake is cabled across the Tasman Sea.