At the Ilkley Literature Festival

The town of Ilkley, a lovely little place on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, has no cinema. It closed down in 1967 or 1968. That’s what one of the organizers of the town’s film society told me. The society was showing a film (well, a DVD anyway) upstairs in the Ilkley Playhouse, the same theater in which I had just given a talk. I was milling about in the lobby after signing some books and got to chatting with the men who were getting ready for the night’s main feature,Capote. The film society shows a new DVD there every two weeks. For many people, it’s more convenient than driving 12 miles to Bradford to see a flick. Another man, a former headmaster, had a unique way of laying out the programs for the evening. He put a stack of A4 sheets of paper on the table, held down one corner of the bottom sheet with his finger, then placed the palm of his other hand on top of the stack and began turning his hand in a clockwise direction. Gradually, elegantly, the sheets blossomed into a perfect fan, like a peacock unfurling its tail. He said he learned the trick at the local fish and chip shop, back when he was a boy and fish and chips cost “tuppence.” I had turned up in town for the Ilkley Literature Festival and was struck by the way I encountered aphorisms at every turn.

First of all, on the train from Leeds, a teenage boy, maybe he was about 17 or 18 years old, walked past me down the aisle. I happened to notice his t-shirt bore a slogan, which read:

A weekend wasted is not a wasted weekend.

Not necessarily a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree, but still an excellent aphorism. Then when I got to the Ilkley Playhouse, someone offered me a cup of tea and some biscuits. I was very keen on the biscuits since I really needed a sugar rush before I was due to go on. In honor of the festival, biscuits come with a complimentary haiku. Now, haiku are normally not aphorisms; they tend to be almost completely imagery and feeling, without the philosophical heft an aphorism requires. But the one I got qualified on both counts, an excellent haiku and pretty strong aphorism, too:

Black spider on your towel!

After that it’s always there

Waiting to be found.

Before I was due to go on, I was pacing up and down in the dressing room. Fortunately, there was a bowl of fruit there and I scarfed down a banana. The biscuits didn’t quite pack the punch I was hoping for. Time always seems to drag in dressing rooms. You can hear the audience entering the theater, hear them chatting and laughing, hear the seats scuffing and screeching across the floor. But the longer I have to wait, the more nervous I become. So I would much rather just get on, since my nerves quickly disappear once I step onstage. Anyway, I kept looking at the clock and it seemed to be going incredibly slowly. Every time I looked at it, it showed ten minutes to six. So I would pace up and down a bit then look again. It still showed ten minutes to six. That can’t be right, I thought. So I got up close, examined it and realized, the clock had stopped at ten minutes to six! The second hand was just stuttering there, stuck in the same position like one of those wind-up toys that hits a wall and just keeps cranking away. Anyway, after the show a guy came up to me and shared a wonderful aphorism his grandmother always used to say:

Keep your mind and your bowels open and you’ll do alright.

Apparently, she never specified if it had to be in that order… The next day I was puttering around in the tourist office, where they also had some local souvenirs for sale. And sure enough, there was a selection of hotplates with traditional Yorkshire proverbs on them. My favorite:

You can always tell a Yorkshireman—but you can’t tell him much.

Even Bettys Tea Rooms, the famed Ilkley eatery, had aphorisms printed on the menu. Bettys was founded at the turn of the century by a young Swiss confectioner, Frederick Belmont. He initially intended to head for the south coast of England. But confused by the bustle of London, and not speaking a word of English, he ended up in Yorkshire. And not having enough money for a return train journey, he remained. His descendants still run the place to this day. One of “Uncle Frederick’s” sayings on the menu reads:

If we want something just right, we have to do it ourselves.

Mr. Belmont was no doubt a better confectioner than aphorist (and Bettys‘ chefs still make a tasty rösti), but the ubiquity of pithy sayings in Yorkshire really got me thinking. There must be something in the pudding…