We Learn By Making Mistakes (1)

Douglas Adams, the famous author of (among others) The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”, wrote this to help us better understand “The English and Strangers”.


“This actually happened to a real person. It was me!
It was April 1976 and I had gone to catch a train in Cambridge. It was early morning and all the London commuters filled the station. It turned out I had mistaken the time of the train and so arrived very early. I went and bought a cup of tea, a packet of eight small biscuits and a newspaper to do the crossword. I looked round to see if there was a seat. The cafe was crowded and there was only one place left at a small table with another man sitting there reading his newspaper. He was perfectly ordinary, wearing glasses, a business suit and with a briefcase. Like all English people I sized him up and decided he was not going to do anything weird. I sat at the table with my cup of coffee, newspaper and packet of biscuits.
Unfortunately, after a minute what my stranger did was this. He leaned across, picked up the packet of biscuits, tore it open, took one out and ate it. He put the packet back down on the table and went back to reading his paper.

 Now, I’ve got to say it, the English are very bad at dealing with this sort of thing. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who, in broad daylight, has just stolen your biscuit. I knew what would happen in South Central Los Angeles. It would have ended with a lot of trouble, the police would be involved and it would probably make the national news. I thought about this in a state of confusion and ended up doing what most red-blooded Englishmen would do, I decided to ignore it. I stared at my newspaper, took a sip of coffee and tried to do a clue in the crossword but was unable to concentrate. I just kept thinking, “I ought to do something”. In the end I decided there was nothing else to do but to go for it in my own way. I tried to ignore the fact that the packet was mysteriously open, reached across, took out a biscuit for myself and ate it. He obviously noticed and I thought, “That’s sorted him out,” but it hadn’t. A moment later he reached across and took out another biscuit.
Having not spoken up the first time, it somehow seemed harder for me to raise the matter now. Could I really say, “Excuse me but I can’t help noticing…..”? To me, it just didn’t really work. So I took another for myself.
Bit by bit we went through the whole packet like that. All eight biscuits were taken in turn. It felt like a lifetime. I couldn’t begin to concentrate on my paper and I was pretty sure he was in the same position. There was a definite tension in the air but I was determined not to cave in.
Finally, a minute after we got to the end he stood up and walked away but not without giving me a meaningful look, which I made sure to return. After all, it wasn’t me that was a problem. As he left I breathed a sigh of relief having found the tension of the situation disturbing. Well, I am after all an Englishman.

A minute later my train was announced as due for arrival. I drained my coffee cup, folded up my paper and there on the table underneath was my packet of biscuits. Exactly the same packet of biscuits, different in only one way. This packet of biscuits was definitely mine.

Since that day, I lived with the thought that somewhere in England there is a man telling that same story but without my punchline of an ending and who is extremely wary of strangers…….or rather…….people like me.”


Moral: Do not rush to judge other people

Judge Ye Not, Lest Ye Be Judged Also