Bernard Darwin’s Introductions

I have recently been sent a book, Introductions by Bernard Darwin, edited by Dick Verinder, an antiquarian golf enthusiast and publisher in Texas.

Darwin is revered by golf readers as the first great golf writer, and half a century after his death is still generally regarded as the greatest, if not the only great.   He also happens to be a cousin of mine, or rather I of his.

bdmugThe book of introductions comes with a foreword by Daniel Wexler, who needs no introduction, according to the editor.  First question. What is the difference between an introduction and a foreword?

Unlike Introductions and Prefaces, which are written by the author, a Foreword is written by someone else, ideally a greater authority, who says what an important and good book this is, and thereby gives it credibility.  So these essays really ought to be called forewords, except where Mr Verinder includes Darwin’s introductions to his own books or to anthologies of his compilation, some of which include pieces of his own writing – at the publishers’ insistence, Darwin is swift to point out.

darwin-golfNaturally enough, golf is the subject of many of the 56 books Darwin was invited to introduce, beginning in 1920 when he was in his forties – and I suppose we can say that being asked to introduce a book is a fair measure of having acquired ‘authority’ status.  But it is not the only subject.  Darwin’s interests ranged widely.  His knowledge of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes was encyclopaedic, he wrote for the now defunct ‘fourth leader’ slot in The Times and one of his editors there described him as ‘the finest English essayist since Charles Lamb.’

His most famous introduction and one of the most interesting is his contribution to the first Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which I was delighted to discover in the clubhouse at Hunstanton last summer, as a consolation for a wet morning.

Mr Verinder sets the scene for Darwin’s involvement in this project. The publishers had been let down and in May 1941 wrote to Darwin in desperation, inviting him to come without delay to Oxford where they would offer him a quiet room, the proofs, 15 guineas and six hours to write the ‘great’ introduction they needed.    ‘You are the man,’ they wrote, not minding that he was a Cambridge man.   As Mr Verinder points out, Darwin was ‘noted for his knowledge and love of quotations’ and, as a busy sports reporter, he was accustomed to writing quickly.

The ODQ got its introduction: more than eight closely printed pages of it, which is to say approximately 4000 words.  “Under this enchantment I have fallen deep,” writes Darwin  (Midsummer Night’s Dream? The Tempest?).  “I have pored over the proofs so that only by a supreme effort of will could I lay them down and embark on the impertinent task of trying to write about them.”  When exactly in the six hour window was this supreme effort of will deployed to bring the impertinent pen into action?

If the six-hour rule was indeed taken seriously, Darwin must surely have drafted some of his essay in advance, slotting in remarks about the included, the left out and those who find themselves unlikely neighbours in the dictionary for reasons of alphabetical propinquity.   It remains an impressive effort, especially bearing in mind that Darwin found time to play games with the index and calculate that Alexander Pope beats Shakespeare with more key words per line.

The reason I find this essay so interesting is that it includes Darwin’s thoughts on the use of quotation, which is such a trademark of his writing – and, to me, its greatest stumbling block.  Has any other writer in history had such a quoting habit?  Somewhere in the book – the introduction to a life of Bobby Jones, perhaps – Darwin claims that he lost a quoting match to another writer.  If true, this must have been a rare defeat.

Darwin does not often use quotations in the conventional way, introducing and referencing them and using them to reinforce his argument or as points of departure for discussion.  Quotations, frequently from Dickens, simply pour from his pen and he rarely bothers to attribute them, in much the same way that we are quoting whenever we say ‘and thereby hangs a tale’ or ‘shaken not stirred’ or ‘go ahead, make my day’.  With the difference that these quotations have been devalued by over-use to such an extent that we tend to avoid using them, whereas Darwin’s are in no such danger.

For those unfamiliar, here are a few typical examples.

If it could not be said of the players that they were ‘grand gowfers a’, nane better’, all could claim at least a reasonable degree of competence

We say that A Tale of Two Cities is a very fine book but not ‘the genuine stunning’.

darwinbypathIn his introduction to Golfing By-Paths, an anthology of his own essays, Darwin informs us that he has made changes only where “.… I appear regrettably to have said the same thing more than once. This, in the words of Michael Finsbury, ‘is a thing that may happen to anyone’. …. I have not adhered to chronological order but have rather tried to give the reader some ‘fine confused eating’.

Why does he do this?   What does the quote about ‘a thing that may happen to anyone’ add?  It is not a memorably stylish turn of phrase, but quite banal.  All the quotation marks do is stop me in my tracks and make me wonder: who is Michael Finsbury?  A character from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrong Box.  Should I be ashamed of not knowing this?

The culture changes, and most of us are immeasurably less well read than our grandparents.   The Wrong Box and Michael Finsbury were doubtless much better known then than they are now.  Darwin tells us that Finsbury was often quoted in court by learned judges of the Court of Appeal.  His writing is of its time, but even then many of his quotations must have been obscure. 

Most of us learn to speak and pick up our turns of phrase from our family and friends.   Should we assume that Darwin, a motherless only child (at least until a stepmother and much younger half-sister came along), learnt to express himself from books?

Or is it that he grew up in a competitive and culturally rarefied environment, among relations who spent their days spouting the classics at one another and their evenings playing word games, reciting poetry or writing plays to perform to the grown ups?

The fact is, Darwin’s head is so full of his favourite works, almost every circumstance reminds him of a literary anecdote or phrase.  He has a prodigious memory, and loves to quote from it.   

When one of his golfing companions duffs a chip, he recalls that “Mr Snodgrass on one famous occasion said that ‘it was the salmon’. On this occasion it may have been the lobster”.  It goes without saying that we are expected to know Mr Snodgrass and the famous occasion.

“Quotation brings to many people one of the intensest joys of living,” is Darwin’s first tee shot for the ODQ – straight down the middle, with no holding back.   This was certainly true of Darwin himself: the intense joy he found in quoting is unmistakable.   To paraphrase his argument, we love a quotation because recognising it flatters our vanity so we like and applaud the person who quoted it.  And if others fail to recognise it, so much the better.  Darwin loved competitive games, and quoting, like golf, was a game he was good at.   “The mind loves to dwell on fireside quoting matches between two friends each of whom thinks his own visual memory the more accurate.”

I felt the force of this recently when I brought a group of friends to Darwin’s grandmother’s house in Wales for a golf weekend and found that my sister had coined a motto for our visit, and made labels for our bedroom doors: “Only a Morning Round.”   Having by luck just finished reading Darwin’s Introduction to Patric Dickinson’s  book about British golf courses, I recognised the quotation and understood its friendly drift.  “She means she is looking forward to our return visit,” I explained, feeling very pleased myself and with my sister, for such a fine choice.

The obverse of this, inevitably, is that we are less likely to be overcome by warm feelings of empathy with those whose quotations sail over our heads and remind us of our stupidity.  In fact, “we accuse those who quote from outside our own small preserves …. of showing off.  Other people’s quotations are not merely tedious but wound us in our tenderest spot.”

This awareness does nothing to stop Darwin: far from it.  He is said to have been the most charming and generous conversationalist.  But to me he is one of those people who keep flicking inverted commas with their fingers.

In his foreword Daniel Wexler admits that ‘perhaps I was unduly impressed’ by Darwin’s ability to fill ‘a golfing essay … with so many obviously significant references that I did not immediately understand.’

Darwin was a classical scholar and lapsed barrister and he loves to throw in Latinisms.   The first quote in the book, unattributed as usual, comes after a few paragraphs of the first essay: ‘Procul o procul este profani.’  In case you were wondering, this is from book 6 of the Aeneid, and it is here directed at artists who produce tiresome golf drawings of humorous intent without knowing how to draw a golf club.

As these essays make clear, Darwin is not fond of golf jokes, especially those dreamed up, as most of them are, by non-golfers.   I fear he would not have smiled at hole-in-one sock/trouser jokes or birthday cards showing frogs jumping out of the pond to shelter around the flag at the sight of an approaching golfer.  I am with him on this.   Golf itself is a joke, and attempts to make jokes about it pale in comparison with the real thing.

The Stymie Bridge and The Golf Guider, by Heath Robinson

The Stymie Bridge and The Golf Guider, by Heath Robinson

He does make an exception for W Heath Robinson’s Humours of Golf (1923) – ‘his prodigal imagination soars into more complicated regions’ – and comments on the ingenious Stymie Bridge.  “There are today some people who are anxious to abolish what they call the ‘unfairness’ of golf.  If they come into power there will be no stymies.  The golfer of the future would not understand Mr Heath Robinson’s joke but by that time golf will be such a huge joke in itself that it will not matter.’ 

As Darwin points out, many of Heath Robinson’s ideas are less far from reality than he might think, which does not make them any less absurd.  I feel sure I have seen – from a safe distance – the ‘golf guider for hitting the ball on the exact spot’ in a certain well-known golf academy.


To return to the ODQ, Darwin recognises that the book will be a precious resource for journalists: ‘the hard pressed writer may find and note many excellent phrases against future contingencies, whether to give a pleasing touch of erudition or to save the trouble of thinking for himself.’

Is this why he does it?  If so, there is no need.  Darwin’s prose is so delightful, no touching up is required. 

He predicts that the ODQ will be appreciated by crossword puzzlers, although some crossword snobs will continue to take pride in never resorting to a reference book.  This is one game Darwin refuses to play. “Crossword setters use books, and this is an epoch of reprisals.  Let us use books too and hoist him with his own petard.”

“There is good fun in ferreting out a quotation,” he continues. “It well repays the ardours of the chase.”

The book of Introductions introduced me to the truth of this observation today.

Introducing a book about life in College at Eton, Darwin – himself an Eton scholar – does not take long to throw in “Ecoutez, les Gascons! C’est toute la Gascogne.”

This quotation, along with 98% of its fellows, meant nothing to me.  Since it is reproduced without the comma between Ecoutez and les, I translated the first part to myself as ‘listen to the Gascons’, and that made no sense at all.   Mystified, I looked up the quotation – from Cyrano de Bergerac – found the comma and understood the meaning and context. ‘Listen, Gascons ….’

It is, as Darwin might say, ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’: an eve of battle pep talk, the leader appealing to the patriotic sentiments of his Gascon troops, who are far from home outside the northern French city of Arras, by inviting them to listen to the music of a piper and think of home.  I read the speech, which is not long, and it seemed to me to be as beautiful as any pastoral French poetry I know (which is not saying much).

So I am grateful to Darwin for introducing me to Cyrano; and to the internet, which reduces the ardours of ferreting to a few easy mouse clicks.

Introductions by Bernard Darwin is published by Dormy House Press 

PS I am grateful to Dick Verinder for sending me this: 

In Life is Sweet, Brother he talked about writers’ use of quotations:

“It [the use of quotations] is no doubt a maddening habit . . . they do it partly because they come to think in the language of their favourite books, and partly because the mere writing down of some heavenly phrase gives them a rich physical satisfaction not to be resisted.”


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