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An essay by A. A. Milne

A Digression

Title:     A Digression
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

My omnibus left the broad and easy way which leads to Victoria Station and plunged into the strait and narrow paths which land you into the river at Vauxhall if you aren't careful, and I peered over the back to have another look at its number. The road-mending season is in full swing now, but no amount of road-mending could account for such a comprehensive compass as we were fetching. For a moment I thought that the revolution had begun. "'Busful of Bourgeoisie Kidnapped" would make a good head-line for the papers. Or perhaps it was merely a private enterprise. We were to be held for ransom in some deserted warehouse on the margin of the Thames, into which, if the money were not forthcoming, we should be dropped with a weight at the feet on some dark and lonely night.... Fortunately the conductor came up at this stage of the journey and said "Ennimorfairplees," whereupon I laid my fears before him and begged him to let me know the worst. He replied briefly, "Shorerpersher," and went down again. So that was it.

Why is the Shah of Persia so popular? Even in these days when kings are two a penny, and there is a never-ending procession of Napoleons and Nelsons to the Guildhall to receive swords and freedoms and honorary degrees, the arrival of a Shah of Persia stirs the imagination of the man in the street. He feels something of the old thrill. But in the nineties, of course, we talked about nothing else for weeks. "Have you seen the Shah?" was the popular catch-phrase of the day; there were music hall songs about him; he was almost as important as a jubilee.

It is curious that this should have been so, for a Shah of Persia is not really as important as that. There was never a catch-phrase, "Have you seen the French President?" or even "Have you seen the Tsar?" both of whom one would expect to take precedence of a Persian ruler. But they are more commonplace people. The Shah makes his appeal, not on account of his importance but on account of his romantic associations. He fills the mind with thoughts of uncut rubies, diamond-studded swords, Arab chargers, veiled houris, and the very best Persian sherbet. One does not stand outside Victoria in the hope of seeing any of these things in the carriage with him, but one feels that is the sort of man he is, and that if only he could talk English like you or me, he could tell us a story worth the telling. "Hooray for the Shah!"

Seated on my omnibus, and thinking of these things--(we had tacked by this time, and were beating up for Pimlico)--I remembered suddenly a little personal incident in connexion with the visit of that earlier Shah which is not without its moral for all of us. It teaches us the lesson that--well, we can settle this afterwards. Anyway, here is the story.

The Shah of Persia was in England, and all England was talking about him. Naturally, we were talking about him at my private school. I was about nine at the time; it is not the age at which one knows much about high politics, but it is almost the only age when one really knows where Persia is. I have no doubt that we "did" Persia in that term, out of honour to the Shah. One result of all this talk in the school about the Persian Potentate was (as you might expect) that a certain boy was nicknamed "The Shah," presumably on account of some magnificence of person or costume. Now it happened that the school was busying itself just then over some election--to the presidency of the Debating Society, or membership of the Games Committee, or something of that sort--and "The Shah" was a very popular candidate. I was one of his humble but admiring supporters.

Observe me, then, on the polling day, busily at work in a corner of the schoolroom. I am writing in bold capitals on a piece of exercise paper, "Vote for the shah." Having written it, I pinned it proudly up in a corner of the room, and stood back awhile to look at it. My first effort at electioneering. There was no immediate sensation, for everybody else was too busy over his own affairs to notice my little poster, and so I went about from one little knot of talkers to another, hanging shyly on the outskirts in the hope that, when it broke up, I might lead the way casually towards my masterpiece--"VOTE FOR THE SHAH."

Suddenly my attention was attracted to another boy, who, even as I had been a few minutes ago, was now busily writing. I kept my eye on him, and when he had finished his work, and was walking across the room with a piece of paper in his hand, I followed him eagerly. He was at least twelve; I was only nine. Can you wonder that he seemed to me almost the last word in wisdom? So I followed him. Could it really be that my poster had forstalled his? What glory if it were so! He pinned up his notice. He moved away, and I read it. It said: "VOTE FOR THE SHAR."

You can imagine my feelings. I went hot all over. "Shar," of course, not "Shah." How ever could I have been such an idiot as to have thought it was "Shah"? S-h-a-h obviously spelt shash, not shar. How nearly I had exposed my appalling ignorance to my fellows! "Vote for the--"; I blushed again, hardly able to think of it. And oh! how thankful I was now that everybody else had been too busy to read my poster. Hastily I went over to it, and tore it down; hastily I went back to my desk and wrote another poster. Observe me now again. I am writing in bold capitals on a piece of exercise paper: "VOTE FOR THE SHAR."

And the moral? Well, my omnibus has now; fetched its compass round Victoria, we are back on the main route again, and I think I must leave the moral to you.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's essay: Digression