Some Old Companions by A. A. Milne

In the days of the last-war-but-thirty-seven, when (as you will remember) the Peers were fighting the People, Lord Curzon defended the hereditary system by telling us that it worked very well in India, where a tailor’s son invariably became a tailor. The obvious answer, if anyone bothered to give it, was that the tailor’s son, having had his career mapped out for him at birth, presumably prepared to be a tailor, whereas a peer’s eldest son, as far as one observed, did not prepare to be a statesman. Indeed, the only profession in this country to which one is apprenticed in one’s childhood is that of royalty. The future King can begin to learn the “tactful smile,” the “memory for faces,” the knowledge of foreign languages and orders, almost as soon as he begins to learn anything. He alone need not regret his youth and say, “If only I had been taught this, that, and the other instead!”

These gloomy reflections have been forced on me by the re-discovery of all those educational books which I absorbed, or was supposed to have absorbed, at school and college. They made an imposing collection when I had got them all together; fifty mathematical works by eminent Den, from a well-thumbed, dog’s-eared Euclid to a clean uncut copy of Functions of a Quaternion. It is doubtful if you even know what a quaternion is, still less how it functions; probably you think of it as a small four-legged animal with a hard shell. You may be right–it is so long since I bought the book. But once I knew all about quaternions; kept them, possibly, at the bottom of the garden; and now I ask myself in Latin (for I learnt Latin too), “Cui bono?”How much better if I had learnt this, that, and the other instead!

History for instance. How useful a knowledge of history would be to me now. To lighten an article like this with a reference to what Garibaldi said to Cavour in ’53; to round off a sentence with the casual remark, “As was the custom in Alexander’s day”; to trace back a religious tendency, or a fair complexion, or the price of boots to some barbarian invasion of a thousand years ago–how delightfully easy it would be, I tell myself, to write with such knowledge at one’s disposal. One would never be at a loss for a subject, and plots for stories, plays, and historical novels would be piled up in one’s brain for the choosing. But what can one do with mathematics–save count the words of an article (when written) with rather more quickness and accuracy than one’s fellow writer? Did I spend ten years at mathematics for this? The waste of it!

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But perhaps those years were not so wasted as they seem to have been. Not only Functions of a Quaternion, but other of these books, chatty books about hydro-mechanics and dynamics of a particle (no, not an article–that might have been helpful–a particle), gossipy books about optics and differential equations, many of these have a comforting air of cleanness; as if, having bought them at the instigation of my instructor, I had felt that this was enough, and that their mere presence in my bookcase was a sufficient talisman; a talisman the more effective because my instructor had marked some of the chapters “R”–meaning, no doubt, “Read carefully”–and other chapters “RR” or “Read twice as carefully.”For these seem to be the only marks in some of the books, and there are no traces of midnight oil nor of that earnest thumb which one might expect from the perspiring seeker after knowledge.

So I feel–indeed, I seem to remember–that the years were not so wasted after all. When I should have been looking after my quaternions, I was doing something else, something not so useful to one who would be a mathematician, but perhaps more useful to a writer who had already learnt enough to count the words in an article and to estimate the number of guineas due to him. But whether this be so or not, at least I have another reason for gratitude that I treated some of these volumes so reverently. For I have now sold them all to a secondhand bookseller, and he at least was influenced by the clean look of those which I had placed upon the top.

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So they stand now, my books, in a shelf outside the shop waiting for a new master. Fifteen shillings I paid for some of them, and you or anybody else can get them for three and sixpence, with my autograph inside and the “R” and “RR” of some of our most learned mathematicians. I should like to hear from the purchaser, and to know that he is giving my books as kind a home as I gave them, treating them as reverently, exercising them as gently. He can never be a mathematician, or anything else, unless he has them on his shelves, but let him not force his attentions upon them. Left to themselves they will exert their own influence.

I shall wonder sometimes what he is going to be, this young fellow who is now reading the books on which I was brought up. Spurred on by the differential equations, will he decide to be a lawyer, or will the dynamics of a particle help him to realize his ambition of painting? Well, whatever he becomes, I wish him luck. And when he sells the books again, may he get a better price than I did.

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