No Comparison

by R. G. G. PRICE

R. G. G. PRICE lives in Sussex and has contributed much light writing and literary criticism to Punch. He writes for the Atlantic on a rariety of subjects.

ONE of the basic human rights ought to be the Right to Choose the Men You Are Compared with. As it is, the sight of me moving through my second plateful of curried prawns reminds my family not of the kind of man who comes back for more after his fourth helping but of the kind of man who pays a dietician to emaciate him. Similarly, my reading gets tested against a professor’s, never against the literary knowledge of a man who finds five headlines a day tough going.

My beauty has to stand comparison with the perfection of stars in stills, when I know just the man I would choose and often manage to stand next to him at parties. There are warts even inside his ears, and ginger hairs stick out of them; he smacks his lips and squints at the end of every sentence; and he would make any impartial observer whose eye rested on him pass on to discover me with delighted relief.

Take gardening. I am not much of an earth worker. I like to think that my garden belongs to Nature rather than to Civilization. I have nothing but pity for the man next door, who seems to be driven by something, probably remorse. In the early morning he is out behaving like an excavator. After a day at the office he returns home and moves streams about his land and makes ponds and builds dams, the conduct of a beaver rather than of a member of the human race, to which, judging by his clothes, he belongs.

On the other hand, Heaven forbid that I should ever sink to enjoying my garden from a hammock. I fix my own chair, and as the sun moves I move too. I have known men who not only lay in hammocks but insisted that someone should be working within sight. Well, it is always the man in the sweat, never the man in the hammock, whom my family take as the fixed point for the comparison.

When I was at school I used to feel injured because the fact that I did less well than the boys who did better was considered more worth comment than the fact that I did better than boys whose work was worse.

I often tried to persuade my parents that a boy called Frank Foster was the boy to judge me by. I harped on how much better I could do things than Frank, how much more reliable I was in the home, how much brighter were my prospects in life.

It was difficult to fight off their requests to invite him home to be inspected. He did not give the impression of being used to cooked food, and though he could imitate human speech he could never use it successfully for communication. One day he was removed from the school, probably to a zoo, and I did the best I could with a boy who had learned the right-hand columns in the sevenand eight-times tables the wrong way round, which hampered him in arithmetic; but he soon caught up with me and bounded past up the educational ladder. The last I heard of him he was a bishop.

I need hardly waste time mentioning that my family prefer to compare my literary earnings with Hemingway’s rather than with Milton’s (he sold Paradise Lost for &163;10, about $29 at present exchange rates, which I make about 2700 words a dollar).

Most men I know understand the future. They feel at home in it and are not surprised when it turns up as the present. Prediction comes as easy to them as memory. They know when to buy and when to sell, where Russia or Argentina or Norway will be in five years’ time, and what the lumps under the brightly colored sauce are going to taste like. Me? The future baffles me until the moment of its arrival. Then as I read the paper my cries of “Lawks-amussy" and “You could knock me down with a feather" resound through any place where I happen to be.

I cannot predict; but I claim to be superior to the people who predict wrong. I knew a man who insisted all through 1944 that World War II would end with Japan smashing Germany while the United States, Britain, and Russia looked on. I once had a landlord who believed the world would end on January 1, 1935. (It is a horrible thought that I cannot prove he was wrong.) When I was eight a little girl told me if I did not stop I should be turned into a dog by a witch the very next minute. Well, I am typing this with hands, not paws. This is the grade of seer for me to be compared with, not men whose buying has the same effect on the stock markets as a match to a rocket.

The human race is very large and the average member is stunted, poor, and not very gay. If you think of it as a pyramid and all too many teachers do—I am somewhere over halfway up. After all, I have television, a degree from a University, and a desk with nine drawers. In the Congo or the Gobi desert I should seem a pretty solid citizen and cause widespread envy. It is quite irrelevant that I do not have a car the size of a small yacht, or a private chapel, or a herd of deer, or a hat in which the original shape is still detectable.

Evolution has carried me up from the plain past the foothills. The topmost peaks may have been scaled by others; but then they like it up there. I like it down here. It is true I should like to inch my way up just a little bit higher, but that is virtuous repulsion from those below, not snobbish emulation of those above not keeping up with the Joneses but keeping away from the Browns.

Taking the Browns as the datum line, my rating is plus one. I do not see why I should always be tested on a scale where the Joneses provide the datum line and my rating is minus five.