A Guide to Boring
by Hilaire Belloc
I AM DISTRESSED to note that in the interesting department of Boring (the Latin Ars Taedica) no outstanding work has been done upon the active side: the science and practice of Boring.
There has been plenty of writing upon the passive side, describing the horrors of being bored; and plenty of sound invective against the Bore; plenty of good description of his appearance and (what is more difficult) a few good descriptions of his approach and manner. But I can remember nothing at the moment describing the Art of Boredom: informing such of us (and I am one) as desire to inflict it upon our enemies. The book wants doing; and I would like to drop a few hints on it here.
In the first place, I will beg my readers to get out of their heads (if they have it lodged there) the idea that boring is not to be learnt and practised, because the bores he knows are commonly aimless. That is a great error. I admit that aimless men are often the best bores—the kind of men who would take prizes in a National Bore Show. I will even admit that the King Bore is usually himself ignorant of his terrible powers. But for deliberate and intentional boring you must have a man of some ability to practise it well, as you must to practise any art well.
For Boring may properly be regarded as an art, and in connection with it I shall now enrich you by giving rules for its successful practice. With that object let me recite you the signs whereby you may discover that your efforts have effect.
The first sign is an attention in the eye of the bored person to something trivial other than yourself. If while you are talking to him his eye is directed to a person aiming a gun at him, that is not a sign of boredom. But if you see it directed to a little bird, or a passing cloud, that is a symptom, as the doctor said. Another symptom is occasional interjections which have nothing to do with what you are saying. A third, and very much stronger, symptom which should especially delight you as proof of triumph is the bored one’s breaking out into conversation with somebody else in the middle of your speech.
The choice of subject for boring is not of great consequence. Any subject can be made interesting, and therefore any subject can be made boring; but the method is all-important. And the first rule I would give in this matter is to speak in a sing-song, or at any rate with continuous repeated rhythm and accent. Those perfectly practised in the art can talk rapidly without punctuation and with no raising or lowering of the voice; but you rarely ever get this in its perfection except from politicians, though I have known others who were not bad at it. The chief master of the style, to my certain knowledge, never got into the House of Commons at all; he was only a candidate; but I walked miles to listen to him at his meetings for the sheer pleasure of seeing it done.
Another very useful tip is the bringing in of useless detail, and the branching of it out into a luxurious growth of irrelevance, and this works best of all when you are telling a story which is intended to please by its humour. Thus it is a very good plan to open with hesitation over a date: “It was in July 1921—no now I come to think of it, it must have been 1920, because—” (then tell them why it must have been 1920). “No, now I think of it, it must have been 1921”—(then tell them why it was ‘21)—“or was it 1922? Anyway, it was July, and the year doesn’t matter; the whole point lies in the month.”
That is a capital beginning, especially the last words, which indicate to the bored one that you have deliberately wasted his time to no purpose.
A parallel method is to worry about a name which you have forgotten, and which is in no way material to your story.
A third tip, and a useful one, is the addition of all manner of local colour and descriptive touches. You must imitate as well as you can (it is not saying much!) the accent of the characters in your story, and you must begin a lot of sentences with “It was one of those . . .” and then pile on the adjectives.
A further rule is to introduce digressions, especially of an aesthetic or moral sort. Stop in the middle of the thing and add to the agony by explaining that you don’t mind a man’s getting drunk, or that you do mind it, or that you have no objection to such a building as you are describing, or what not: for your private opinions in art and morals are the most exquisitely boring things in the world and you can’t bring them in too much.
Again, remember that there are special ways of adding to the effect, of bringing out what may be called the high lights of boredom. Of these by far the finest is suddenly forgetting the end of your story, just as you are reaching it. It has an enormous effect. I knew one case where a man had a bottle thrown at him because he did this, and no handsomer proof of his success could have been given. The sharpest form of it is to lead your piece of boredom up to a question such as: “And what do you think he answered?” and then you pause a minute and say: “Damn it all! I ought to remember . . . I’ve almost got it! . . . you see, the whole point depends on getting the words exactly right . . .” Then, after keeping them all in a little hell for thirty seconds, say, hopelessly, that you despair of getting it, and leave it at that.
The man who desires to shine as a bore, and uses this offensive weapon with brio and success, must also learn how to break down the defenses. Those who have had to suffer high boredom, and who still have energy left in them, can put up a good fight; it is the duty of all bore-students to be ready for such opposition. Thus there is the defense of suddenly interrupting the borer and talking against him in a new and lively tone. For instance, if he begins: “Do you know Rio? Well, once when I was in Rio . . .” the victim may suddenly disclose a nest of machine-guns, shouting: “Rio! Bless you, yes! I know Rio!” then pouring out a spate of Rian recollections and thus mastering the enemy fire by a hose-play of words. There are only two ways of countering this. One is to complain openly that you are interrupted and insist on being allowed to go on with the torture. The other is to let the other man exhaust his ammunition and then riposte yourself with renewed energy.
A subtler form of defense, and a very effective one, was invented by a highly-placed permanent official about thirty years ago. It consists in listening to the borer until he has made his point—or what he calls his point—just at that moment putting on an air of complete abstraction, and after that asking why he doesn’t go on. To meet this form of defense it is no bad plan to begin the story all over again. That’ll teach him!
But the strongest defense—the one you have to fear most—is that of walking away. Most men who have studied the art of boring take this for a definite defeat. They need not. I know one man at a club from whom people used to walk away deliberately in the middle of his boring-exercise. He met the tactic by going after the quitter and catching hold of his coat, and quite half the time he was successful. But few men have such courage.
Lastly, let me urge on you two private recipes of my own. One is spells of silence in the intervals of boring—it’s a paradoxical truth that they add vastly to the effect. They must not be so long as to let the victim take up a book, but just long enough to break his nerve. Watch his face, observe its gradual relaxation, and time yourself exactly for the renewal of the agony. The other is talking half incomprehensibly, mumbling, and the rest of it—then, when the boree impatiently asks you to repeat, do it still less clearly. It never fails.
But all these rules are, after all, mechanical. A man will never become a natural bore by the following of paper precepts any more than he will become a poet by book-learning; so perhaps I have written in vain.
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