Chapter Nine: Clear Instructions
Just before Ronald Surry and I intervened in the battle between the two boars, he gave me instructions about what he expected me to do. I followed those instructions, and not just because they’d been apparently non-negotiable. They were clear, and so I knew not just what I was supposed to accomplish, but why I was doing it. As a prelude to them, Ronald had explained to me what had taken place that required us to act: the snowfall, the failure of the electric fences, the violent territorial intentions of the Landrace boar. He’d done all of this in under thirty seconds.
I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but economy and clarity of instruction is both rare and admirable. In the moment, it was enough that the instructions I was given—that morning and throughout my stay on Great Crouchs Farm—were clear and easy to follow. It didn’t seem to make any difference if the instructions were about how to keep from getting trampled by a bad-tempered boar, what pressure was required on the edge of a scalpel to cut through the scrotum of a two-week-old piglet, or what books I ought to read next. Ronald’s instructions were almost always brief and yet explicit, and Joan’s, although she seldom gave me what I would have interpreted as “orders” the way Ronald did, were equally so. (1)
There are a lot of people out there just making things up as they go along, as often testing a theory or principle as trying to provide direction or to inflict influence on others. I’ve tended to fall into this group, but to compensate for the collateral damage I inflict, I’ve tried to find alternatives to the “giving orders” part of instruction. I’ve also noticed that the further from theory and the closer the proximity to practical matters, the more succinct and successful my instructions become.
Then there are people like my father, who had a lifelong urge—generally counterproductive even on his terms—to challenge the will of anyone he tried to instruct. This strain of instruction-giving isn’t exactly rare, and it can be fueled by all sorts of motives—necessity, willfulness, egomania, and a dozen other obscure urges, ideologies and practical intentions of obscure provenance, including love and the urge to protect the vulnerable. The constant is that the person being instructed has to discover the actual task on his or her own, and it’s rarely the one the person doing the instruction says it is. For my father it was always about obedience, and imposing his will. He did it to everyone, because he just had to be, in every group he was in, the only dog with his tail up. It’s why most of his instructions came to grief of one sort or another.
When it came to dealing with me, my father’s ostensible instructions were a poor camouflage for his doomed hope that I would knuckle under to his way of doing things: I was supposed to stop reading all those useless books and go into business with him. My response was to either refuse to do anything he said, or do the opposite of whatever it was I thought he wanted of me. It wasn’t that I ascribed malice to him, or that I thought he didn’t know what he was talking about. I understood, deep down, that he meant well, and that on some subjects at least, he was fully competent to instruct me. But it was going to cost me too much to go along: he was going to stand over me as I complied, and howl that he was a bigger dog than I was. He just couldn’t help himself.
In 1962, I thought everyone, sooner or later, was going to try that. I was wrong, thankfully. There have been many exceptions to this form of ineffective pedagogy in my life, and Ronald Surry was the first important one. He wanted to get practical things done, and he sensed that eye-to-eye clarity was the best way to get me to listen.
It has occurred to me recently that this ability to provide accurate instructions was a result of his military training, where the ability to give clear orders is among the highest and most important skills a command officer can have. The British military historian John Keegan, in his 1987 book The Mask of Command, analyzes the command skills of four military leaders: Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler. His essay on Grant draws a portrait of a profoundly if understatedly remarkable man, arguing that the clarity of Grant’s battlefield orders were a major factor in the Union victory in the American civil war.
“…[Grant]” Keegan writes, “preferred to do the work [of command] himself. He had discovered that, like Wellington, he had Herculean powers. He also knew that he was better at their jobs than any group of subordinates. Wellington could afford not to delegate because his army was always very small. Grant could afford not to because, though his armies were eventually very large indeed, they were composed of men used to shifting for themselves, which he encouraged them anyhow to do.
“…Grant possessed formidable intellectual capacity. He had the novelist’s gift for the thumbnail sketch of character, dramatic setting of mood and introduction of the telling incident; he had the historian’s ability to summarize events and incorporate them smoothly in the larger narrative; he had the topographer’s feel for landscape and the economist’s instinct for material essentials; and he had the philosophical vision to balance the elements of his story into the argument of his apologia pro sua vita—which was how a just triumphed over an unjust cause.”
Grant’s armies in the field, Keegan believed, were effective because they always knew exactly where their commander wanted them to be and what he wanted them to do.
Ronald Surry wasn’t at the level of Ulysses S. Grant, either in military rank or communication skills, but he was, as they say, military grade, and I think he knew it. He was able to convince me that instruction—whether practical task-related direction, categorical orders or doomed advice—had the possibility of at least clarity, but that one had to first create the conditions in which it was possible for one person to listen to another without loss, on either side, of dignity, or a reduction in the intelligence and complexity of the transactions. The presence of rank and discipline under military conditions no doubt simplified this. In civilian life, where authority, in the untotalized Western democracies at least, is permanently liable to challenge and there is no longer an agreed cultural path to authenticate it, it’s a lot more complicated.
Like others who survived service in the Second World War, Ronald had seen the physical consequences of the mutual failure of nations to listen to one another, and closer up, likely experienced the consequences of insufficiently clear or inadequately delivered orders, or of orders once received, misread or ignored. He was also a shrewd if misanthropic judge of other people’s character, often able to predict their responses to casual conflict before they indulged in them. It’s probably no accident that the army made him a highly-ranked signals officer—a man trained in coded communication—and he was, by nature, a man who preferred not to communicate at all, or at least, only within secured circumstances.
That combination, methinks, is, outside of hot military combat, a recipe for madness. At very least, I think it’s accurate to say Ronald didn’t enjoy his communications abilities much. He used them mostly along the permanent defensive perimeter he’d erected against strangers long before I met him. I’d begun as one of those strangers and whenever I did something stupid or said something thoughtless I regressed to that status in his eyes. For self-preservation, I quickly developed a working knowledge of where his perimeters lay, and how he patrolled them. Then I learned their basic technologies.
The communications strategies I adapted by watching him were to speak very little while among strangers, and when compelled to speak, to be sure to stay on topic and be repetitively clear. There were other things—tactics, mostly—that I worked into my repertoire, and not always in ways Ronald would have taken as a compliment, like learning to keep my trap shut when I was loaded. Growing up in Northern B.C., where mouthing off could result in serious injury even if you were among people you knew and trusted, no doubt gave me a leg up on that one.
Conversation between Ronald and Joan fascinated me because they generally began with a brief ritual (one that I later learned originated with the Dominican Monastic order) in which they casually agreed on the discursive vocabulary they would use, and made a tacit promise to remain reasonable beings should disagreements emerge. It’s a promise I’ve offered and tried to extract from the different women in my life, generally without success. That’s a shame, because conversation across gender has grown infinitely more complicated over the last fifty years as stereotypes about male and female identities and social roles wither, and mutually hostile but poorly articulated alternate tropes proliferate.
Their ritual might proceed something like this:
Joan: “I’m thinking of going to London for the Anti-war demonstration in December.”
Joan: “To stop all these wars, you silly man.”
Ronald: “Wait a minute. Are we discussing this on geopolitical terms, or in terms of ecology and the environment?”
Joan: (thoughtful pause) “On diplomatic terms, all wars are ‘necessary,’ so I think we should move to ecological terms—the effect it has on the planetary and local environments. And no, I’m not prepared to dismiss the human suffering it causes, either.”
Ronald: “Right. Proceed.”
None of this explains why—or how—Ronald and Joan gradually drifted into, um, “marital dysfunction” I think the term is, over the twenty years that followed. I can’t reconstruct that narrative because I wasn’t there as a witness, and have just a single and very brief eye-witness account from one of my friends of their descent, and their daughter, Judith’s part in it. It appears that theirs was a gradual decay, character-based, not the product of a singular transgression or situational calamity. The most likely cause would be Ronald losing control of his war-experience demons, or less grandly, that he became, as several of his siblings also did, too eccentric for anyone to put up with. But maybe the dysfunction, as Ronald frequently suggested while he was drunk, was because human beings are at root instruments of chaos, that they are psychologically too delicate not to break when stressed, and that human intimacy, whether for love, sexual gratification or simple creature comfort, is doomed by both the transience of pheromones and by the short erotic attention spans we’ve inherited from our primate ancestors. But maybe that’s just me, today, thinking that.
Despite Ronald and Joan’s eventual marital failure (and more than one of my own that was self-inflicted) I retain a simple if slightly dark optimism about human domestic relationships. Despite the innumerable impediments, it has been and still is possible for human beings to listen to other human beings, and to learn from them. Ronald and Joan, at least in 1962, could find ways to listen to one another, and I was able to listen to them. Sometimes—maybe even frequently, I learned from them. These are articles of faith, but for which the empirical evidence is quite firm.
Yes, gender roles have since collapsed, along with most of the antiquated notions of where gender boundaries lie. So have most of the cultural customs that render civility, thus making effective authority more or less impossible. That’s fine with me because attempts to impose authority are always undercut by the self-serving illusions of the authorities, and frequently, by their flat-out venality. Liberating individuals from gender expectations and other arbitrary constrictions has resulted in a culture without generally accepted domestic rules, but there’s as much opportunity in this as there is chaos.
All this is interesting enough, I suppose. But it also reminds me of a little-appreciated element of the carefulness with which language was used at Great Crouchs Farm—how little exaggeration there was, and how few euphemisms were used: we castrated the little pigs and removed their testicles. Animals sometimes died, and when they did, they were dead. When I euthanized that weaner the other weaners had nudged to the edge of heart failure, I was told to kill it, not “send it to a better place”, and not just because Ronald and I both knew that the “better place” was going to be a roasting pan. The idea of a sow being “serviced” by a boar may seem a euphemism, but the real-world interactions it describes are so matter-of-fact and perfunctory they most resemble “service”. It’s saddled me with a recurring nightmare in which a woman with whom I’m trying to make love—or maybe just trying to ensure that both of us have orgasms—gives me that “Christ, can you just get this over with” look I often saw in the eyes of the sows in mid-service.
That efficiency of instruction and definition was a conscious preoccupation of Ronald’s, who, like most of the Surrys, was aware of the power of language even if they used it to bludgeon and deceive as often as they deployed it for accuracy or brevity. (2)
In ordinary conversation, though, Ronald wasn’t always precise. He had a weakness for off-kilter adjectives like “nacreous”, which he sometimes used to describe me. I was bothered by this, since there was nothing about me—then or at any other time—that suggested mother-of-pearl, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t using it to suggest that I was snotty, because that wasn’t then part of my repertoire, though it has come and gone a few times since. The explanation might be simple; he used it and other strange terms as a ploy to get me to look the word up in the dictionary and call him on their use.
I did look up “nacreous”, but I didn’t tell him I did. I wasn’t sure enough of my own grasp on language to risk that. Around that time I’d carelessly—and rather loudly—referred to something as “hogwash” during an argument. Ronald stopped the conversation and angrily demanded to know what I thought we washed pigs with: that hogwash wasn’t a word I could deploy interchangeably with “rubbish” or “garbage” or “refuse”, and then went off on a long and unusually passionate rant about the fundamental cleanliness of pigs, who, it is true, only lie in mud to cool their poorly-ventilated bodies, and would, if allowed, take nightly bubble baths and swath their privates with the best French perfumes.
Since that day I have never once used the term “hogwash”. I don’t accuse people of being pig-headed, either, out of respect for the complicated and often unstubborn thoughts that waft their way through the minds of pigs. It’s this sort of respect for specificity that Ronald and Joan, in their different ways (and with George Orwell), taught me to take responsibility for: Clear language is a primary civil virtue, just as opaque language is a political evil.
There was a playful element to Ronald’s use of language, and I took to it as enthusiastically as I did to his insistence on clarity. While we were playing ping pong in the kitchen at Great Crouchs Farm, Ronald Surry would twist the old homily of “All’s fair in Love and War” to “All’s fair in War and Ping-Pong”, usually after a patently impossible- to-return serve that had caught me flat-footed. He had been, he claimed, the Canadian Army’s Ping-Pong champion at some point during the War, an accomplishment I didn’t question despite its logistical improbability and its specious provenance.
Ronald was a really good ping pong player, but nearly all his best moves were illegal by international table tennis rules: he’d twist the ball on serve so that it knuckle-balled across the net, and attempts to return it would generally veer wildly off the table. He saw no reason to serve corner-to-corner, as is required by international rules, and at least a third of his serves skittered along the edge of the table, catching me either off-guard, off balance, or both. He had other tricks, too, most of them psychological, and I won’t tell you what they were since I use them myself, and, well, you never know when a game of ping-pong might be in the offing.
The reality of playing in the farm’s kitchen with its uneven floors and limited area was that it really was “ping- pong” we played, and that’s a quite different game than table tennis, where a balance between aggressive attack and defense is enabled by unlimited space at the ends of the table. Ping-Pong, which is the same game played in confined spaces, is a game of aggressive attack, trick moves, and laughter, because the limited space makes defense impossible.
Ronald cheerfully showed me all his tricks, and I probably even managed to beat him several times by turning his tricks back on him. When I returned to Canada, where my family had always had a Ping-Pong table in the basement, I discovered that I’d become a Ping-Pong superperson, particularly when I got away with using Ronald’s Canadian Army Rules to legitimize my more orthodox and nearly always table tennis rule-breaking moves. As a matter of note, I am to this day the Canadian Writers’ Ping-Pong champion, having won a tournament in 1995 against far more skilled table tennis-playing writers by insisting that since we were playing in a basement, we had to play by Canadian Army Ping-Pong rules—which only I knew, and which, like Ronald, I tailored to suit the situation.
Ronald’s facility for careful language isn’t surprising given that his mother—my grandmother—was a kind of walking Oxford English Dictionary, able to quote from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets the way a fundamentalist preacher quotes from the Old Testicle—I mean, the Old Testament.
* * *
(1) In my experience, people’s attempts to give instructions to others have been mostly unsuccessful. The success rate for those who’ve tried to instruct me has been significantly lower than that. Sometimes their attempts to instruct failed because I wasn’t listening, or because I didn’t want to hear about whatever it was they wanted me to do. But just as often they failed because the instructions themselves were muddy. The mud could have been the product of the attempted instructors not being sure what they wanted to accomplish, or because they did know what they wanted but wished to cover themselves in case they were wrong or discovered to be excessively self-serving.
(2) The carefulness of Postwar British use of the English language was perhaps the last wonder of the British Empire in its truncated form in that brief respite from the totalities of the Second World War and the onset of the Reagan/Thatcher revolution that ended in the Triumph of Capitalism and the kleptocratic tropes that now rule everything. For me it began with the unexpected but intense pleasure of Joan’s mellifluous accent, and quickly after, the careful accuracy of Ronald and Joan’s conversation. I soon uncovered the generally merry pleasure that the educated British took in the use of their language. Ironically twisted, shifted or made-up words seemed to infuse the speech of the people I encountered—mostly well-educated friends of Joan and Ronald—but this playful care, I noticed, was also a constant presence in British newspapers and on radio and television. A raft of uniquely literate language commentators gently policed the language—mostly with laughter and ridicule, and the BBC hired the impossibly witty Robert Robinson as its de facto language czar, and not just to give Kenneth Tynan the stage to use the word “fuck” on British television. You could expect to be laughed at if you mispronounced words and you could be fired from your job if you misused them on radio, television and in the press. It’s unfashionable now to say this, but Margaret Thatcher’s “democratization” of Great Britain, which enriched Britain’s wealthiest but removed their cultural ascendancy and prestige (and inflicted British soccer thugs on the world), effectively destroying the ability of all but a tiny and shrinking elite of the British public to use the English language as a device for apprehending and enlivening meaning, an ability that had been cherished since Elizabeth I was queen of England and which, in 1962, seemed to be nearly universally practiced.
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.