Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Humor of Tom Girtin



Through the good offices of InterLibrary Loan, I have borrowed a 1959 volume of British humor (or humour) from the Seattle Public Library entitled The New Book of Snobs, being a collection of pieces commissioned by Punch magazine that describe various species of snob.  When I ordered the book, I had persuaded myself that the book might possibly reach back to include some of Ashley Sterne's snob articles from Pan in 1920.  No such luck. 

Nevertheless, the book has its delights.  British writers of 1959 still generally preserved the hallmarks of British comic literature – irony, wit, and erudite allusion – that flowered in the years following the Great War.  I especially enjoyed the lead-off article, "Drink," written by Tom Girtin.  A Google search indicated that Girtin (1913-1994) wrote a flurry of comic fiction in the late 1950s: Come Landlord (1957), a fictionalized account of a pub landlord; Not Entirely Serious (1958), a tale about "a civilian entangled in the military machine that was the Home Service Command;" and Unnatural Break (1959), a commercial novel.  On the strength of my appreciation of Girtin's snob piece, I ordered Come Landlord from a London used book store and should receive the book in six weeks.  (From this estimated arrival date, I must assume that the book will be traveling to America in the hold of some tramp freighter.)

Here is the first part of Tom Girtin's snobbery article "Drink."  I took particular delight in his arcane but apt reference to the abstemious Old Testament clan of the Rechabites.

*          *          *

DRINK

Since almost the whole joy of Snobbery lies in the act of communicating the sense of your superiority it is of course essential that your victim should speak, or at any rate understand, the same language.  And for this reason the Drink Snob is in a peculiarly happy position: literally the whole world is his prairie oyster.  Anybody can play.  For the inescapable truth is that every one of us must, in order to sustain life, drink something; and although when snobbery in drinking is mentioned thoughts turn snobbishly to wine, yet snobs every bit as accomplished are to found among both Rechabites and non-denominational water-drinkers.

Consider, for example, the following incident involving those old troupers A, B, and C:

A (gulping water thirstily): A-a-a-a-ah!

B: The best water I've tasted anywhere – and as you know I've knocked around a bit – came from a little stream in the hills at the back of St.-Jean-de-Luz, of all places.

C: Water?  Never touch it meself.  Rusts the guts, hahahah.

In this incident B is a straight snob.  C is an inverted snob, though it looks as if he may also be a straight snob in the sub-species of "over-indulgence snobs" who, on the basis of a "session" on light ale, wish to be thought devil-may-care hard-drinking characters.

On the evidence before us, A is not a snob at all – but he may be an inverted snob who, by drinking water, is trying to prove something – perhaps that he has the common touch and does not mind using a chained metal cup belonging to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association.

The number of permutations and combinations that can be read into this one simple incident gives uneasy intimations of the vast unplumbed depths that face the explorer.

When the successful preparation of a beverage involves a more or less complicated ritual the opportunities for the snob are correspondingly increased.  The connoisseur will have long since noted with malicious pleasure that in tea-drinking the problem whether the milk shall be placed in the cup first or last has actually ceased to be a matter of taste and has become one of class.  Moreover, among tea-drinkers there is always a place for the inverted snob with his reminder that the best tea you could get anywhere was in the Army: "You can have all your China teas – just give me a cup of 'gunfire' (that's what we called it, 'gunfire'), where old Cookie just flung the tea-leaves and sugar together into the boiling water in a dixie."

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