20 Sep 2021

Letter to a Dead Friend

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George Steiner

The latest World Spectator has several nice pieces, which I cannot resist quoting.

Frederic Raphael, novelist and noteworthy screenwriter, published a scintillating letter, simultaneously affectionate and rivalrous, to his (deceased last year) friend the Jewish polymath George Steiner which, at one point, repeats a humorous, self-deprecatory story Steiner used to tell.

[A]t your first dinner in King’s, you had taken a modest seat one place from the end of high table. Your neighbor, an old professor of mathematics, did not return your vespertine greeting. You and he sat with your backs to the serving table, from which college servants brought charged salvers to the Fellows and their guests. At dessert, a heaped silver platter of the first strawberries of spring was carried along to the Provost and then along the far side of high table. You watched the towering treat being sapped by more or less voracious dons. Eventually, the platter came to your elbow, the penultimate diner. Twelve strawberries remained.

‘The question that I posed to myself,’ you told us, ‘and which I now put to the company is, in view of the fact that the senior wrangler on my left was the only fellow to be served after me, how many strawberries should I, a guest of the college, be advised, en bon débutant, to take?’

Playing up, I made the stooge’s choice of six; so, I believe, did the others, except for Beetle, who said, ‘Five?’

You looked at her quickly and then said, ‘Five is precisely the number, after brief reflection, that I myself chose, with due deference to my neighbor.’


‘Indeed. As the waiter switched the salver and its diminished cargo to the one remaining, so to speak, candidate, the old professor looked at me for the first time, eyes brimming with contempt. “You bloody fool,” he said.’

You replied, with properly obsolete courtesy, ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘You bloody fool,’ he repeated.

You said, ‘Might you do me the honor of explaining your sanguine choice of courtesies?’ The old mathematician swiveled round to point at the serving table behind your back. Another wide salver, freighted with glistening strawberries, was even then being removed, unbroached, to the kitchen. ‘Had you but had the audacious intelligence to take all the few remaining berries,’ he said, ‘I should have been free to help myself as copiously as I had looked forward to doing.’


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It’s a matter of “balls”. I was brought up correctly, I am a gentleman and always polite. But, after living for 78 years I have more or less developed an attitude. I would have stood up and grabbed salver before the meager platter of berries was even passed my way. The American version of “savior fair” when someone objects to my behavior is “ha, ha. ha, fuck you”! Not followed by a stare or dirty look but by turning away conversation ended.


That incident explains why the dumb math bastard was at the extreme end of the table. A “gentleman” with some smarts and courtesy would have “elbowed” his neighbor and suggested that he take it all since there was a full bowl (salvar?) behind him. The old phart would rather do without than tell the other how the game was played.

For myself, “strawberry”, like “green apple”, is the swill served up in cheap cafeterias and lowly hospitals since it is least offensive to most. I preferred the wild dark red “real” berries that grew behind our home. At the “High” table, I might have taken “one” to avoid offense, unless I was alert enough to ask the old phart what his preference was. As it turns out, “Phuck Him!” and the slide rule he rode in on. Tripping the Old Bastard is too good for him.


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