The Worse the Better

H. F. ELLIS is a Londoner whose light prose has frequently appeared in the ATLANTIC. He, is on the staff of PUNCH.

I Suppose I must be the worst water-color artist in the world. Others potentially worse there may be, but my guess is they haven’t tried. Or, if they have, they’ve stopped. Should any of these incompetents go to work after reading this, I shall be happy — out of pure philanthropy, not because their efforts may step me up one or two places in the ranking list. I am quite content where I am.

I might also, without wishing to hog all the discredit, claim to be the worst pianist in the world, and not far off the most inefficient carpenter. But I won’t argue the point. All I want to note just now is that music, painting, and carpentry give me more pleasure than all the things I think I am some good at put together. Never mind what those are.

It is not always easy to remain very bad, but the effort is worth while. First of all, you have to pick on some craft or hobby that you have no gift for, and it is by no means impossible to trip up on this very elementary point. Thousands of men have got themselves into difficulties over golf through not realizing in time that they had a certain aptitude for it. A few unlucky good shots in those early carefree rounds, which ought to be regarded as the clearest warning to leave the thing alone, lead instead to a determination to improve at it — and there you are. The mischief is done. Brightness falls from the air. Pleasure, laughter, the sudden ecstatic cry, “Good lord! I hit it!” — these are no more; in their place come lessons, endless practice, constant discontent with the result, loss of temper and friends, the long, long struggle to get the handicap down to twelve, to ten, even (in very bad cases) to eight.

The whole essence of a really relaxing spare-time occupation is that one should be constantly surprised that one can do it at all, that any- thing results. When I paint a tree that is, by my standards, recognizable as a tree, I am boundlessly delighted. Nobody else would be, but the picture is not intended for anybody else. In my lack of desire to “communicate,” I can claim to be a typically modern artist. It is my tree. It did not exist in the world before I took up my brush, and now, for better or worse, it does. Sometimes, by a fluke, it is even at the right distance. It looks, that is to say, as if it really were on the far side of the water I have so deplorably washed in. More often I get it about three tones too bright, so that the viewpoint shifts in a surprising way and the onlooker is practically bound to get his feet wet. When that happens I snip it out, scrap the rest of the landscape, and put it in my portfolio as Study of a tree.

One of the perils that have to be avoided is friendly help. One’s family, from whom it is difficult to conceal these occupations, cannot believe that one is happy as one is. They suggest classes. They tend to give books. I very nearly lost the precious pleasure of doing hopelessly bad water colors through the unsolicited present of a First Steps in Painting.

I opened the book in a moment of madness in order to discover what colors mixed together produce an elfin silver-gray (those advised actually produce a dingy olive), and at once found myself faced with an instruction that before beginning to paint I must learn gradation. I must be able to take a single color (“pigment” is the word they use) and by the admixture of ever-increasing amounts of water lay down a series of washes starting as a strong blue and imperceptibly toning down to practical invisibility. This sort of thing is death. Worse, it is work. It leads to dissatisfaction with one’s own incompetence, a feeling of hopelessness, and (if the book is not thrown away at once) a serious risk of giving up altogether. It is as fatal as practicing scales when taking up the piano.

The reader had better understand, in case I have forgotten to mention it, that I am talking about hobbies and occupations taken up in middle age. I see no harm in wanting to be good at things when young. That is the season of hope, when mind and hands are pliable, lessons are a natural infliction, and the long years stretch ahead, rich in the promise of improvement. At forty-seven, when I mixed my first paints, the situation is different. There isn’t time. Even if part of my leisure hours had not already been devoted to carpentry, which I took up as early as fortyfive, I doubt whether I could have become world famous. I might, I suppose, have found that I was a Grandma Moses or a Winston Churchill and forged ahead, becoming more and more absorbed. But that pitfall happily did not open before me. If it had, I should have been too busy to take up the piano at forty-eight.

Piano playing, I ought to warn elderly beginners, is not so immediately enjoyable as some other arts. For the first few hours you have got to set your teeth and stick to it, with nothing much to show for the trouble.

This is because of the difficulty of connecting up the printed notes with the right keys on the piano. There is a good deal of counting up of lines and spaces, rechecking, and so forth, with the result that the interval between actual notes played is too long for a tune to emerge. But the effort is worth while. Quite soon one is striking a note every second or two, and the music begins, as we say, to flow. Memory holds the last note until the next is ready, which is all one has a right to ask.

I recommend hymn tunes. They are readily recognizable when got right, the tempo is familiar, and a start can be made on the voice part, which is one-note only. Then, as one progresses (there is always progression: a different thing from improvement, and harmless), the accompaniment in the right hand will be found often to have only two notes, which represent the limit for middle-aged enjoyment. The left hand should be reserved for turning over the music.

I find that any attempt to play with it tends to split the personality.

My carpentry, I sometimes fear, is improving to a point where I may get ideas above my station. Occasional yearnings sweep over me to make something really good: a drawer that neither rattles nor jams when pulled in and out, or a table with joints so perfect that additional struts are not necessary to stop the legs wobbling. There is a risk that I may lose that pleased astonishment at producing a bookcase that will actually, with a little judicious propping, support books; I may become overweening and want to do without putty and screws.

I hope not. Carpentry, apart from its other delights, has a pleasant smell, a quality that music lacks. But if I am going to get arrogant about it, it will have to be dropped. People think there is something praiseworthy about the conviction that one ought to be able to do better. There isn’t. It is pure arrogance — and the secret of happy spare-time fiddling is humility. The feeling I like to have when I have completed some piece of work (whether a hymn, a corner cupboard, or Roses in an Unusually Shaped Vase) is not that I must do better next time but that I shall be lucky if I ever do so well again. As a rule I don’t.

“If a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing badly.” Sitting here at the piano, picking out what anybody ought to realize is The Lass of Richmond Hill and letting my eyes stray between bars to the increasingly lopsided wall bracket on which reposes my latest (and in some ways my worst) water color, I am inclined to think that Chesterton did not go far enough. I would say that a thing is worth doing because one does it badly. It becomes boring, round about the mid-forties, to think that everything one does is wonderful.