Being on holiday affords an annual chance to do some reading and this year to sample for the first time a tome by George Eliot, or Mary Ann Evans, as we now know the author, a volume described by Martin Amis as ‘probably the greatest novel in the English language’.
Rich with observation and psychological insight in its characters, it made liberal use of quotations as well.
I was struck by a short but hard hitting poem, presented in the book in a way that rendered it unclear whether an unattributed quotation or an original:
“Follows here the strict receipt
For that sauce to dainty meat,
Named Idleness, which many eat
By preference, and call it sweet:
First watch for morsels, like a hound
Mix well with buffets, stir them round
With good thick oil of flatteries,
And froth with mean self-lauding lies.
Serve warm: the vessels you must choose
To keep it in are dead men’s shoes.”
The temptations of idleness were routine fare in novels of the time, Dickens’s Tom Gradgrind in Hard Times, coming readily to mind. But these were days of idle rich, those comfortable enough to be idle and not recognize the start of a downward spiral. In the those days, the poorly off had no option of idleness because with no means, starvation was imminent.
Idleness in more recent years has had a lifeline in the benefits system. And yet surely it has still been “dead men’s shoes”? Can a person really find fulfilment in life through idleness? And what is the root of idleness, is it a conscious decision or a state of mind brought on life experience?
Have idle folk tasted “morsels” and “called them sweet” or been fed morsels and told them to be “sweet”? Tell a man he is good for nothing often enough and he will find it true. Tell a girl her lot in life will be to have a kid and survive on the social and that may not be challenged.
Recent focus on ‘Early Years’ seems well placed and a part of that work should be to help children form an impending view of their own potential and to develop a sense of ambition, motivation and purpose in life.
A balanced diet of ideas in early life can do much to set a course towards lifelong fulfilment, but those “morsels” need to be in the sweet shop to be chosen in the first place. Do we do enough to give that choice to every young soul.