Wednesday 19 October 2011

Here's How - Virginia Graham

One of the best, and certainly one of the funniest, books I read in 2009 was Virginia Graham's Say Please, a faux etiquette guide from 1949.  (I wrote about it here.)  Foolishly, I did not investigate whether or not Graham had followed it up - and it was a joyful coincidence that I happened across Here's How (1951) in London a while ago, and an even more joyful discovery that it's perhaps even BETTER than Say Please.

Rather than a guide to etiquette, Here's How purports to be an instruction manual on many and various activities - from singing to redecorating to playing the piano to laying a carpet.  Needless to say, Graham has very little of great use to impart on these topics, but the voice she adopts is one of unswerving self-confidence, coupled with a devastating lack of confidence in the abilities of her reader. It's all deliciously tongue-in-cheek and her tone is expertly judged. Sadly Osbert Lancester doesn't do the illustrations for this one, but Anton's are amusing too - as shown by this DIY Henry Moore impersonator, on the cover.

I could chirrup on forever about how much I enjoyed reading this, but I think instead I'll simply give you some excerpts. There are quite a few, but I couldn't resist. If they meet with your approval, I'll type out a whole section tomorrow (probably the first, 'How To Sing') rather than just the sentences/paragraphs which caught my eye.

How To Play The Piano
However beautiful a melody may be it requires bolstering with an accompaniment, and this does not mean, as so many people seem to think, hitting bottom C repeatedly in the hope that it may, on occasions, coincide with the tune.

How To Ride
In a clash of wills between horse and man it is imperative that man should win; otherwise horses will just go browsing about eating grass in a nonchalant fashion instead of taking people places and pulling things.

How To Paint
Unless you are made of some steely inhuman stuff or unless you have a stingy and really not very attractive streak in you, you will insist upon giving yourself a very beautiful, heavy wooden box, smelling richly of cedar, satin to the touch and containing dozens of tubes of paint.  Separate from these rotund and glistening torpedoes will be ranged, in neat compartments, brushes, turpentine and oil.  If you are zealous in your work and really want to get on you will find, in a few weeks' time that the tubes have not only become misshapen but that most of them exude paint from both ends; that all their screw caps are lost and that the orifices thereby exposed to the open air are clogged.  In consequence the box refuses to shut and, having primarily been a portable asset becomes an encumbering fixture.  Now is the time to go out and buy the capacious mackintosh shopping bag which you could have bought right at the beginning if you hadn't had such ridiculous delusions of grandeur.

How To Skate
In recent years, since the knack of freezing chemicals into a passable imitation of ice has been acquired, skating has become very much the vogue.  Even the "lower orders" who, in more natural circumstances would be employed sweeping snow from the pond's surface or feeding coke into braziers are now able to skim like birds from one end of Earl's Court to another, only pausing on their way to circumnavigate an orange.

How To Plumb
Lagging pipes is one of those things you read about in the weekly magazines and it isn't normal for a householder to get around to lagging his own. Indeed it isn't normal to do anything until it is far too late, and even then action is often confined to ringing up one's mother to ask if one can go along to her and have a bath.

Obviously this isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it is very much mine - and I think Here's How would make a fantastic present for anybody like-minded. This is exactly the sort of book which doesn't seem to appear any more (I suppose the nearest comparison are those quick-flick books flogged at Christmas - how much more wonderful Graham's collection is!) and exactly the sort of book I love to discover and stack up on my shelves.


  1. Definitely my cup of tea too! Would love to stack it on my shelves as well but I have a feeling it won't be easy to find copies of this lying around. Sigh.... Lucky you, Simon. Thanks for sharing the lovely excerpts though.

  2. I would enjoy this. Very clever.

  3. I'll drink from another well! It's almost good but I think the author tries just a little too hard.

    Michelle, there are 8 copies currently available from different sellers on Abe Books if you wish to buy it. Prices looks pretty reasonable to me.

  4. This book suits me as well. You're lucky I didn't steal it from you that night at the restaurant with Claire!

  5. Looks like something I would definitely enjoy - cleverly written and humorous!

  6. I bought a secondhand copy of Consider the Years and tucked inside was a letter from Virginia Thesiger (her married name), dated 1942, and sympathising with her correspondent about the bombing of Bath. You can imagine how fascinated I was ... who was this Dear Lieutenant she was writing to? Was he a fan? The book is a first edition inscribed to Patrick from Ursula in 1946 which doesn't help!

  7. Thanks for the tip, Dark Puss. Will check those out!

  8. Michelle - I can't remember whereabouts in the world you are... it's quite easy to find in the UK, but maybe not so much overseas!

    leazwell - great :) Do track down the book...

    Peter - of course I'm not remotely surprised, but you have sent me off onto another track of thought... what do we mean when we say 'tries too hard'? Usually we mean 'didn't try hard enough', I suppose... hmm... art concealing work and all that.

    Darlene - haha, yes, you were very restrained! This is one I'll be snapping up wherever I see it, and sending off to people... so if I find some you might be in luck ;)

    Mum's the Word - finding really good comic writing is so difficult, especially from things printed now, that I felt very lucky to stumble across this :)

    Mary - wonderful! And now I know who it was, because you mentioned that on my Say Please post, but as 'anon', and I wanted to congratulate whoever it was who made this wonderful find!

  9. Sorry, Simon - didn't realise I'd been repeating myself. Wasn't being mysterious, but in pre-blogging days Anon was quicker! What a memory you have!


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at