Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Just William, and a dose of Silent Evidence

In December I pointed out that The Graham Norton Show, by only interviewing successful music or film stars, might be misleading viewers about their own chances of success. Such shows never interview people who fail:
But the fascination in hearing the lives of only successful people means we miss the evidence of the unsuccessful majority.
This is a big theme of Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan, where he writes about the 'silent evidence' that, by its very nature, is never observed - like the terrorist attack that doesn't happen thanks to wise policies - so it struck me as quite an important and modern insight.

I was delighted and amused, then, to see the following conversation in a second-hand, first-edition copy of William and the Space Animal by Richmal Crompton, published in 1956. Crompton wrote a long series of books about the adventures of the irrepressible English school boy William Brown published from the 1920s: really hilarious observations of life in Britain in this period, often poking fun at the fashionable beliefs and norms of the day. In various books Crompton teased her compatriots for their interests in Eastern mysticism and communism, for their hypocritical self-righteousness and youthful extravagances, all from the perspective of the energetic and mischievous William.

In this case William and his friend Ginger are discussing the possibility of their getting to the moon somehow. The boys had, Ginger reminds William, tried lots of ways already, but William is an optimist and eager to keep trying.
'We've got to keep on tryin' till somethin' does come off. Somethin's sure to come off sooner or later. Stands to reason it will. That's what happened to all the inventors in hist'ry. They went on tryin' and tryin' an' in the end it came off.'

'Yes, but you dno't know about all the ones that tried an' tried an' tried an' it didn't come off.'
Silent evidence, in a children's book, in 1956!

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