Lifemanship, or How to Trip the Expert

In his book Gamesmanship and in his article “Golfmanship,”which the Atlantic published last September. STEPHEN POTTER disclosed the new technique by which the dub, or crock, can win various games of skill from a superior opponent. He now lays down a conversational method by which the full-blown ignoramus can take the field successfully against highly placed experts in typography, military affairs, travel, art, and literature.


MILLION’S of people must have formulated the wish, often unconscious, certainly rarely expressed, that the philosophy of Gamesmanship should be extended to include the simple problems of everyday life.

It has indeed been a wonderful surprise to me to find that our small theory has found response; that the seed has been sown in, if possible, such tremendously diverse hearts. And perhaps it is true that today we stand in need of precisely that kind of formulation, more actual if only because it is less concrete, which finds its expression in the so variously manifested temporal problems, themselves reflections of a wider principle, which is yet capable of a not less personal approach.

Counter Expert

I always believe that some kind of ABC of counter expert play is the best grounding for the young Lifeman. Without any special knowledge, without indeed any education whatever, it is possible not only to keep going in conversation but, sometimes, to throw grave doubts on the value of expert knowledge in general. There is no finer spectacle than the sight of a good Lifeman, so ignorant that he can scarcely spell the simplest word, making an expert look a fool in his own subject, or at any rate interrupting him in that stupefying flow, breaking the deadly one upness of the man who, say, has really been to Russia, has genuinely taken a course in psychiatry, has actually read history at Oxford, or has written a book on something.

A few simple rules, then, for a start.

Note. There is no need to stress the failure, here, of the sloppy expert ship of the old school. The man who depended on mugging up the subjects of his week-end fellow guests never went very far. The classical example of this was, I always thought, G. Protheroe. On one occasion, for instance, hearing that Dr. Lowes, the expert on Coleridge, was to be present during a week-end holiday, he spent the previous month (he was a very slow reader) trying to memorize the facts of a small, mass-produced life of S. T. Coleridge printed in the These Men Have Made Their Mark series.

By the Sunday evening, when the visit was coming to an end, he realized only too well that as yet no reference to Coleridge had been made. During a pause in the conversation he decided to speak.

PROTHEROE: I am right in saying, I believe, that there are two versions of the Ancient Mariner and they are not the same.

LOWES: 1798 and 1800?

PROTHEROE: 1798 and 1800.

LOWES: Yes — they are not the same.

PROTHEROE: Not the same.

And here the conversation ended. Easy to find fault with Protheroe. Not so easy to formulate the basic rules which turn failure into success.

The Canterbury Block

We always encourage youngsters to practice as they learn. Why not an easy exercise to warm up? The Expert on International Relations is talking. He is in full spate. How can he be jolted?

EXPERT: There can be no relationship based on a mutual dependency of neutral markets. Otto Hüsch would not have allowed that. He was in Vienna at the time —

LIFEMAN (as if explaining to the rest of the audience): It was Hüsch who prevented the Archbishop from taking office in Sofia.

A suggestion, only. But no matter how wild Lifeman’s quiet insertion may be, it is enough to create a pause, even a tiny sensation.

Your expert dominating his audience is in the position of the golfer four up at the turn. To break the winning vein, break the flow. One is reminded of an old story of a man greater than we, with greater problems — Wagner. How did Wagner maintain discipline over his orchestra and convince them of his professional mastery in his sphere? Before rehearsing a new work, he would purposely insert in the part of one player a B flat instead of the correct B natural. During rehearsal he would stop the orchestra at this passage.

WAGNER: B natural — who was it played B flat?

RICHTER (then No. 16 of the second violins): I did. It’s written in the part.

WAGNER: Ah! a mistake. Alter it, please.

Out of an orchestra of a hundred ... in the huge Gehatmessershalle . . . one semitone in the second violins detected . . . no wonder the flow of suspicion which all orchestras feel for their conductor was blocked, and diverted to admiration!

Here we have two forms of what is known as the Canterbury Block. (This word has nothing to do with Block; nor has Canterbury with Canterbury. The phrase is good “White Celtic” and almost certainly derives from Kan-tiubh bribl-loch (literally the war-winning man-of-words in the porcelainexpert foray.) Originally nicknamed the Trip, both words express the essential dynamic of counter expertizing.


Another simple block is known as “plonking.” If you have nothing to say — or, rather, something extremely stupid and obvious — say it, but in a plonking tone of voice — that is, roundly, wisely, and dogmatically; or take up and repeat with slight variation, in this tone of voice, the last phrase of the speaker. Thus: —

TYPOGRAPHY EXPERT: . . . and roman lowercase letters of Scotch and Baskerville have 2 or 3 thou: more breadth, which gives a more generous tone, an easier and more spacious color, to the full page —

YOURSELF: The letters “have width.”

TYPOGRAPHY EXPERT: Exactly, exactly, exactly — and then if —

YOURSELF: It is a widening.

TYPOGRAPHY EXPERT: What? —Oh yes, yes.

This is the lightest of trips; yet if properly managed the tone of voice can suggest that you can afford to say the obvious thing, because you have approached your conclusion the hard way, through a long apprenticeship of study.

Plonking of a kind, a delicate but embarrassing trip, can be made by the right use of quotation, or assumed quotation. Here is the rough format: —

MILITARY EXPERT (beginning to get into his stride, and talking now really well): There is, of course, no precise common denominator between the type of mind which, in matters of military science, thinks tactically, and the man who is just an ordinary pugnacious devil with a bit of battlefield instinct about him.

YOURSELF (quietly plonking): Yes — “Where equal mind and contest equal go.”

This is correct quotation plonking (a) because it is not a genuine quotation and (b) because it is meaningless. The Military Expert must either pass it over, smile vaguely, say “Yes” or, in the last resort, “I don’t quite get . . In any case, it stops flow and suggests that whatever he is saying, you got there first.

I Was Never in Vladieostok

Here, I think, it is right to introduce a slightly more complex ploy for use against the Travel Expert. He is dangerous, for whatever part of the world happens to be in the news, he will have been there before, and with his firsthand information—even if in fact it is only a firsthand knowledge of the station waiting rooms of the area — he will expect, and may get, a hush whenever he starts to speak.

This expert can only be attacked on his own ground. And the form of attack is to take if possible one foreign place where you have actually been. A convenient one for young British draftees who have spent their army year in Germany is Munster Lager, a transit and demobilization camp well known to them, but entirely unknown to anybody over the age of twenty-one. Munster Lager is good because it can be pronounced, by variation, as if it were a place name of any country. The conversation goes like this. Subject, say, Fishing Rights on Russia’s Eastern Seaboard. The expert coming in to the attack:—

TRAVEL EXPERT: Well, I don’t know, but when I was in Vladivostok, I knew there was going to be trouble. Nyelinsky was on the warpath even then, and I was fortunate enough to meet his staff with the Korean Councilor.


TRAVEL EXPERT: The local papers were frontpaging it day after day. I soon sensed a very nasty situation, even if it didn’t blow up then. It wasn’t a very comfortable visit, but I was glad I’d been, afterwards.



YOURSELF: I was going to say — I’m sorry.


YOURSELF: I was only going to say that though I was never in Vladivostok, I did spend some months in Munster Lager, not a million miles away. (The pronunciation can be slurred into something like Man Stalagin).


SELF: Of course I was working as a stevedore among the dockers and porters — I didn’t see much of the high-ups, I’m afraid. But Lord, I feel I understood the people— the cutters and the quay cleaners, the dossmen and the workers on the factory fringe. The wives waiting on the quayside, waiting with their children. I needn’t say where my sympathies lay.

Often the Travel Expert is completely shut up by this kind of talk; but it is not fur beginners. The clever Lifeman can continue in this vein indefinitely, without ever having to say that he has been in Asia — or that, in fact, he has not.

The Question Gambit

Very different from plonking is my small device for use by the supposed expert when set against those who know more than they should. It is in essence concealed counter and consists in asking questions in a clear, kindly tone of voice, as if you were teaching, or trying to make it simple.

I have used it myself when showing young persons round the National Gallery. A couple of boys l know are very cut-and-dried on the subject of the History of Art. I lake ihem up to a large picture in ihe Florentine Room marked Uccello. Never having heard of Uccello I say:

SELF: NOW, Uccello, as they spell it here. Is he Early? Or is he Late?

BOY: Oh, Early— isn’t he?

SELF: Early. Good. Well, what is he famous for?

BOY: Origin of perspective.

SELF: Perspective — yes — good, (Chitching sight of the figure of a knight in the foreground) Or foreshortening, anyhow. Yes. And what do we know about his color? . . .

The “What a pity!” Probe

Different again - indeed, a totally new form of attack — is the method whereby doubt is thrown on the usefulness, if not indeed the good taste, of expert knowledge itself.

This ploy is beautifully manipulated, I always think, by G. Wert. No speaker, he trusts to the pen, and in letters, articles, and reviews throws doubt not only on the accuracy of the expert opinion but on its validity for the particular context involved.

His opening pass —“ I am surprised that so eminent a scholar as Dr. Trout “— is well known. His variation on the principal theme is no less famous. “What a pity!” is his gist. Of Folder, the specialist on Ben Jonson, he says: “What a pity that Dr. Folder, for all the immaculate scholarship of his approach and the learning which is almost too patent in his pages, can yet expend his energies on the schoolbook question of Influences! Ben Jonson’s debt, in his middle period, to the commedia dell’arte. Chapter and verse are given, with pages of parallel passages. Sound enough, were it not a fact that writer learns from writer not by imitation but by conflagration, and takes fire, like a brand from the burning.”

Wert is particularly successful with professors of English literature. “According to Professor Maud Holliday,” he writes, “the lines To Paula reflect Fitzgerald’s interest in Pauline Westerby, the ‘fair white flambeau’of In My Time. Alternatively it is suggested that she is the possessor of the ‘eyes, twin pools of onyx’ in the celebrated stanza. But surely it is enough to realize that here is a man who lived and loved, with warm human passion, a Paula, Pauline, or Paulette, be she who she may.”

Several of these articles ended with “be she who she may,” a phrase of which Wert was particularly proud.

Go on Talking

A very small probe, which yet is not ineffective, has been used by my friend Cogg-Willoughby, who has been fairly successful with a counter from the psychiatrist’s angle.

The expert holds the floor. His audience is submissive. Cogg waits, attentive. Sooner or later the expert will say, “But I’m talking too much” — always a prelude to talking still more. Or, “What do you think?” he may even say, simply.

EXPERT: But you say. What do you think?


EXPERT: But I have been going on!

COGG-WILLOUGHBY: I know. But it’s good. It’s right. I knew as soon as I came in you were happy. You look so splendidly relaxed —

EXPERT: Relaxed?

COGG-WILLOUGHBY: Yes, it’sail right: don’t take any notice of what I say. It’s good.


COGG-WLLLOLTGHBY: It means (hat you’re what we call happy. Go ahead. We’re all listening to you.

Cogg was extraordinarily successful with this sequence for a time, and it led him to explore, curiously enough, the field of counter psychiatry. Cogg’s Anti Psyke, as it came to be called, is not well known, and I have been asked to publish a note on it here. He had two principal tactics, and trained himself to make a spontaneous choice of either.

Tactic One, his favorite, was used against the direct attack. This would be the shape of the dialogue — or at any rate these were the words I noted down when he was set against Krautz Ebenfeld. Imagine, if you can, the thick Slovene accent of the one, and the quiet Cambridge tones of Cogg for contrast.

COGG: I expect you are always observing and analyzing, Dr. Ebenfeld.

EBENFELD: It is my job.

COGG: YOU will make me self-conscious.

EBENFELD: Why is that? Il is what you do when you are not conscious that interests me. Do you know that you caress the back of your neck with your left hand when you speak to me?

COGG (who has been doing this on purpose): No. Really?

EBENFELD: Do you know why that is?

COGG: Well — you mean —

EBENFELD: YOU had a brother or young cousin wbo was a fine swimmer, yes?

COGG: Rather!

EBENFELD: And you perhaps were not much of a swimmer. Yes?

COGG (very warmly): How glad 1 am to hear you say that!


COGG: The doctrine of ‘95, supported by you of all people.

EBENFELD: Ninety-five what?

COGG: Back to the founder of all founders — and how rightly. Hardt’s doctrine, as my own father taught it to me.

EBENFELD: Yes — Hardt —

COGG: How well did Freud say, in his queer English: “He is my look up to. I stand to him — pupil.”

“That is very interesting,” said Ebenfeld. But he realized he was beaten.

Later Cogg even reduced Sophie Harmon, the great lay practitioner, to silence. In this case {Tactic Two) Sophie as usual began it.

SOPHIE: You have a limp?


SOPHIE: YOU were dragging your foot as you crossed the room.

COGG (smelling a rat): Was I?

SOPHIE: You are not satisfied, fulfilled, today/


SOPHIE: You have two motives pulling different ways.

COGG: My limp, you mean?

SOPHIE: Perhaps.

COGG (lowering his voice yet speaking more distinetly): Perhaps. Or just an old weakness of the para-deltoid ?

SOPHIE: Perhaps.

Sophie keeps her head, but she is ployed, and Cogg knows it, knowing, as he does, that she never took anatomy.

It is easy to bungle counter psychiatry—which is, of course, a huge subject. But it is essential, we now believe, to work tit these opening exercises before the more intricate problems are attempted before dealing, that is to say, with the experts in painting and music, politics and philosophy.