The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 6 (October 1, 1930)
The Way We Go — Ins and Outs of Life
When you come to think of it, are you not deeply and widely surprised by the things you don't know—and may not particularly wish to know? Throughout the world all manner of philosophers and uplifters are telling mankind how it can take a hop, step and jump to the millennium if the people will only learn how to do it. Evidently the process is quite simple when you know how.
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Recently I received a circular inviting me to buy a book which will tell me all manner of things about mud and marble, flies and elephants. In order to make an extraction from that pocket, which is never too well filled—that pocket at which the world and his wife are ever clutching —the publisher of the new mine of more or less useless knowledge, addresses me (termed “Dear Friend”) thus—
Do You Know—
—what islands in the South Atlantic are entirely inhabited by Scotchmen?
—that there are seven cities on top of each other at Jerusalem?
—that Tangier has three Sundays each week?
—that through an architect's error, Chile built a Government House intended for Mexico?
—why you see so many rocks in the roofs of Swiss houses?
There are many other queries under the line “Do You Know,” but I have given enough to show how the book will work for anybody who likes to know the why and wherefore of unusual things.
Truly, I feel tempted to buy the book to get the answer to that last question: “Why do you see so many rocks in the roofs of Swiss houses?” It depends, I suppose, on the time of day—whether one is sober or not so sober. I know why there are so many rocks not in, but on, the roofs of New Zealand houses when I was a boy. It was because the bad boys threw them. And that memory raises the questions: “Why are the boys of to-day more law-abiding?” Is it because they have easy access to other amusements and do not need the excitement of stone throwing? Is it because the police are more vigilant and pitiless and citizens are selfishly less tolerant of the aims and objects of wild boyhood?
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Yet, if I bought the book to get the answer to that question about the Swiss, I should probably be disappointed. The answer might be right enough, but it might also prompt me to ask at least a hundred other questions, on which the book would be dumb, and I would feel myself impelled to buy an endless series of volumes with the money which should be going to the butcher and the baker.page 50
Also, I began to think that the traveller who noticed so many things which most of us don't know, saw only a very small part of the earth. Millions of other travellers could take other routes, and each of them could compile a very long catechism, headed. “Dou You Know,” in the certainty that the answer would be “No” to at least 99 per cent. of the queries. And, of course, those chaps would be concerned mainly with the surface of things. There would be the interior of the globe for the “Do-you-know,” and the restless heart of the mighty atom, and then the planets, the stars, comets, nebulae, and other solid or gaseous bodies of the infinite skies. It is a large subject, dear friends. Plenty of headaches in it.
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That is one of the reasons why I sometimes envy the animals and birds. If they know how to get a living and how to enjoy it, they are satisfied. They don't know why Mussolini does not wear a moustache, and they don't care. Is there anything more desirable in the world than the joyous moments of a mated thrush singing in the spring sunshine in a hedge of fragrant may? He doesn't know why Epstein makes statues like nothing in this world, or any other imaginable world, and he doesn't care what Epstein does.
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But let us go on with our questions to ourselves. Have we not all wished to know why sandflies were evolved? What is the diet of the sandfly in lonely wildernesses where the foot of man treadeth not, and his skin is not spread for the feast of obscene insects? Why is it that Mr. Mosquito does not bite, and leaves all the blood-sucking to Mrs. Mosquito? Does Mrs. Mosquito feed her husband? And if so, why?
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Why do goats have beards? The animals do not need these things for warmth. If goats have a right to beards, why shouldn't sheep have them? Also, why do some monkeys have a facial fringe of hair or fur? Is the present clean-shaving habit of English-speaking countries due to the present generation's fear of being mistaken for goats and monkeys?
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Why is it that you can teach a parrot to talk, but can't teach a hen? Why should cats have a wider spread of whiskers than dogs? How did the cuckoo come to get the habit of laying its egg in another bird's nest? Why did not the elephant develop a horned head, and the rhinocerous a trunk?
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Why do some savages have skewers thrust through their noses? These ornaments must be a most abominable nuisance when the savage has a cold in the head. Probably, if we could get to the origin of this fashion we would find that it was established by a shrewd chief or king, who would not be skewered himself, but would confer the Order of the Skewer as an honour for loyal subjects who gave him very good service. That was a subtle way to get the people by the nose.
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Why does New Zealand cling to the hat known as the bell-topper or stovepipe for certain special occasions? Even to-day there are girls who might believe that they would not be properly married unless the bridegroom lined up to church with a shining tile. I notice, too, that the spat is having a run at New Zealand weddings described as “fashionable.” Why? Why is a man willing to make himself look silly at a wedding and not at other times? But most of the wearers forget that top-hat styles change in London from year to year. Various decades of fashions are represented in any big outing of top-hats in New Zealand. But who cares?
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If that book would only tell us these things, and other things, which we should dearly like to know, it would be worth all the savings we have left after the instalments on the motor car, the radio set, and the luxurious Chesterfield suite have been paid.