Kipling's best with added zest

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The Independent Online
I was extremely surprised to learn that the favourite poem of the British is Kipling's "If". Actually, I do not believe it is the favourite poem of the British. I think if you took volume of sales rather than a telephone poll as your guideline, you would find that the poem most often bought by the British is in a greetings card and goes along this sort of line:

On your very special day,

We wish you all the best.

And if you plan to go away,

Don't forget your vest.

No one, however, voted for that or anything much like it, and our taste for greeting card verse, limericks, bawdy rugby ballads and all the things we really like best was conveniently forgotten. Kipling's "If" was duly voted into first place and the pundits duly and enjoyably mocked the choice.

I did not mock the choice, though. That is because I was trying to think of another version of the message in "If" that I had come across somewhere, and I knew that if only I traced it, important locked areas would be opened up to me.

It took me several days, but finally I cracked it. There is another version of "If" and it goes like this:

If you can keep your head

While all about you

Are losing theirs,

They probably know

Something you don't know.

I came across this priceless bit of advice, which seems to me a vast improvement on Kipling, in a book called The New Official Rules, a book that I always thought should be world-famous but which never seems to have spread beyond a coterie. It was compiled by Paul Dickson, an American lexicographer who compiles and entertains simultaneously.

Dickson had the simple but rewarding idea of putting together a book which contained all the non-scientific laws known to man, from the Peter Principle to Sod's Law.

Most of these laws get a single book devoted to them, much as Parkinson's Law was expanded to fill a whole book, and Dickson thought it would be nice to fillet them all out, take off the unnecessary garnishes and serve them all in one volume. The result was The New Official Rules, and it has been through several editions and revisions since I have known it.

The first edition, as I remember, included a long discussion of Murphy's Law, which is the old one about "If a thing can go wrong, it will go wrong", and all the possible extensions of Murphy's Law. Most of these seemed to be along the lines of predicting that the other traffic lanes on motorways will always go faster than yours, and it is no use changing lane because now your new lane will go slowest; or that whichever queue you join in a bank will go slower than all the other queues. This is no longer true, of course, as the people who run banks have read this book and decided to amalgamate all those queues into one long and slow queue so everyone is now discriminated against.

(This may not be true in New York. I have not been to New York for years, but the last time I was there all the banks had multiple queues and all these queues were slower than any queue anywhere else in the world. It is a total fallacy about the pace of life being faster in New York. The pace of life is actually very slow in New York. It takes ages to get anywhere, find anyone, hail a taxi, get a parking space or be given a restaurant seat and be served. Only in a very slow city like New York would people even think of queuing up for a restaurant seat. People in New York seem to move fast because they are always trying to catch up, but the pace is actually very slow and that is why people champ and rage and get ulcers and twitch.)

All these rules were good solid stuff, but they were a little predictable, and I am glad to see that most of them have been eliminated in later editions or relegated to the introduction. What has happened is that readers have constantly submitted their own observations to Dickson and gradually the book has become a repository of wisdom covering those areas of life which nothing else covers, not the Bible and not Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Examples? Certainly. Try these:

"A memo is not sent to inform the recipient. It is sent to safeguard the sender."

"Anything designed to do more than one thing does no thing very well."

"The spouse of the chronically ill patient dies first."

"If you don't want your children to hear what you are saying, pretend you are talking to them."

"Getting rid of all your baby clothes and furniture is one of the main causes of pregnancy."

"Paint splashes last longer than the paint job itself."

More of this tomorrow.

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