Friday, October 07, 2016

`In a Word, I Enjoy Myself Immensely'

To the young he will appear ancient, the relic of a less enlightened time. He smiles, baring a missing front tooth. He wears a white shirt buttoned to the neck with a two-tone bowtie (pink and black, though in black and white). His crewcut is lacquered in the front with Butch Wax, and his smile is alarmingly unguarded, betraying no knowledge of the coming years. It’s my favorite photo of me, taken in 1959 at the start of second grade. I remembered him and dug him out of the file cabinet after reading Max Beerbohm’s “Going Back to School” (More, 1899). On a busy street in London, Beerbohm spies “a very small, pale boy in a billycock-hat.” It is, of course, the young Beerbohm. His unexpected appearance prompts not envy, as it would in many adults, but sympathy for Little Max and gratitude from Big Max:

“Such an apparition as that boy in the hansom makes me realise my state more absolutely. Why, after all, should I lavish my pity on him and his sorrows? Dabit deus his quoque finem. I am at a happier point in Nature’s cycle. That is all. I have suffered every one of his ordeals, and I do not hesitate to assure him, if he chance to see this essay of mine, how glad I am that I do not happen to be his contemporary. I have no construe of Xenophon to prepare for to-morrow morning, nor any ode of Horace to learn, painfully, by heart.”

Those who wallow in nostalgia for childhood may never have left it. We miss the friends and loved ones now gone, of course, and the joyful sense of irresponsibility, but not the clumsiness, anxiety and nagging bafflement. It's good to be an adult, and Beerbohm calls us to sense:

“I write at a comfortable table, by a warm fire, and occupy an arm-chair, whilst you are sitting on a narrow form. My boots are not made `for school wear,’ nor do they ever, like yours, get lost in a litter of other boots in a cold boot-room. In a word, I enjoy myself immensely. Tonight, I am going to a theatre. Afterwards, I shall sup somewhere and drink wine. When I come home and go to bed, I shall read myself to sleep with some amusing book. . . .”

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