A Point of View: The awful truth about how dispensable we are

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WaffleImage source, Thinkstock

Adam Gopnik looks at the cooking instructions for a packet of waffles, and finds a sobering lesson on why we're not as indispensable as we think we are.

Until a few weeks ago, I thought I was an indispensable man.

No, I didn't think that because of anything my wife or children said, and certainly not because of anything my employers suggested. My publisher seems content to keep my books in a state of what they assure me is voguish invisibility.

No, my indispensability depended on a narrower field of triumph. I was indispensable to Saturday morning breakfast, as the only one in the family who could make Swedish waffles - produce them, bacon-garnished, with reliable aplomb.

Since my two children were small, whenever I was home on Saturday mornings, I would make them those Swedish waffles - working from a store-bought mix, but adding in the extra egg and milk, melting butter in the microwave, keeping the maple syrup cold, the way their Canadian genes compel them to like it.

I put on a very good show - watching the heart-shaped waffle iron until it beeped, slapping the spatula down warily on its shining aluminium front, calling the children to the table and then producing the waffles.

Then just a couple of weeks ago, I came home from a nightmarish lecture trip to Texas, where I had been stalled at an airport in San Antonio for two nights, and on Saturday morning bravely put on my 1960s-sitcom-dad face and called out: "Anyone in the mood for waffles?"

Silence. Real silence. And there is no silence as silent as the silence produced by a 15-year-old American girl, not even the tapping of her fingers on her smartphone. My daughter's was not merely an empty silence, but a pointed silence, warping the space around her in a very Einsteinian way. You could almost see it taking on shape and danger.

"It's okay Dad," she said at last. "Mom and I will make them later."

"Mom doesn't know how to make waffles, " I cried. "She's never made waffles in her life."

"She does now," Olivia answered calmly. And then she quietly added these killer words: "While you were away, we read the instructions on the side of the box."

They read the instructions on the side of the box. It seemed like treason, like betrayal. To be fair to myself, I had not been hiding the instructions on the side of the box from them, as ancient pagan priests were said to hide the flimsy gimmicks of their impressive-looking fire-and-smoke ceremonies from their acolytes.

I just had been blithely confident that the instructions on the side of the box were the least of it. You could read them for years, and you still wouldn't know how to really make Swedish waffles.

In fact, I know now - having scanned that treacherous box many times since - the instructions on the side of the box do tell you, in remarkable detail, everything you need to know to make Swedish waffles. The eggs, the butter, the milk, the stirring, the warning that they are thinner than you might expect. It really is all there. I had just read them so long ago that I had forgotten how complete they were.

"You can't learn something like that from the side of the box," I protested anyway. "They may show you the general method," I said. "But the general method is only part of it. It's all in the details."

My wife chimed in, with what I think was meant to be kindness. "Actually they came out very well. Not better than yours. But exactly the same."

Image source, Thinkstock

Othello's occupation was gone. They had not so much discerned a secret that I was keeping from them, as demonstrated to me a truth that I had not wanted to recognise - the elaborate show of my waffle expertise was resting on a cardboard foundation of fact.

The sudden destruction of my indispensability in the eyes of my family gave me, I'm bound to say, a new vision of just how rarely anyone on earth is indispensable to any activity at all. If this can happen even unto waffle makers, woe unto the rest of the world. This came home to me in the next few days with even greater force, after a sort of book-slide occurred in my study, and Alan Clark's diaries once again more or less fell on to my desk.

Clark's diaries had quite a vogue in the UK when they first appeared in the mid-90s. The son of the great art historian Kenneth Clark, Alan Clark was a right-wing Thatcherite of considerable wit, a blunt prose style, and appalling views on most issues. His diaries do make good reading - simply because any writing which dispenses with the normal human taboos against displaying the malice we all sometimes feel about our neighbours and colleagues, makes for good reading.

But the assumed and competitive indispensability of his fellows in the Conservative Party is one of his themes. Though Mrs Thatcher is securely in power as he begins his diary, there is still already endless plotting among the men in her court as to who would be her successor, with each one congratulating himself that it must be him, given his own indispensable role in the Thatcherite dispensation. Who is more indispensable to the movement - Lord Young, or Nigel Lawson, we are asked to consider, over much old claret.

Alan Clark 1928-1999

  • Conservative MP and junior minister in the 1980s and early 90s
  • Chiefly remembered for his bestselling diaries which give a frank portrait of the latter years of Margaret Thatcher's government
  • Highly divisive figure - admired by some on the left while Dominic Lawson (the son of Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson) called him a "sleazy, vindictive, greedy, callous and cruel" Hitler sympathiser

Then as Michel Heseltine conspires and Geoffrey Howe rebels, the crisis mounts - they have to keep this fellow in the cabinet, and how can she govern without that one? They're... indispensable. And then as the 1990 crisis mounts further towards its matricidal climax, the indispensable focus alters - how can we ever win another election, move forward, without our one indispensable woman as the leader?

Well, as you may recall, the indispensable men proved to be eminently disposable - so much so that these days no one even recalls their names. And the indispensable woman, though still memorable, did prove to be replaceable, inasmuch as her replacement, John Major - who no-one in the length or breadth of Clark's diaries regards as indispensable - won the next election about as easily as she might have. He succumbed only to the next incoming club of indispensable men when they emerged as New Labour in the 90s.

For the sure truth is that no one in politics is even remotely indispensable. Again and again, the indispensable man or woman passes from the scene, and what happens next is more or less the same thing as was happening before.

Nobody ever seemed more indispensable than Franklin Delano Roosevelt but a mediocre Missouri haberdasher did just fine when he had to and along exactly the same lines that FDR would have pursued.

What is true of politics is true of smaller places. I have worked at several institutions with indispensable men and women and in each case, when the person the institution simply couldn't do without, was done away with, things went on for good or ill, more or less as they had done before.

The star columnist who resigns in a fit, the prima ballerina who walks out on the brutal choreographer. There's a gasp and then a gap and then amnesia. Even the great stars of sports teams turn out to be less vital than they might seem.

The statistical analyst Bill James once showed that the greatest star in US baseball won for his team at most four additional games over 165-game seasons.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Baseball star Alex Rodriguez

What we really have in place of indispensable people are good institutions - strong teams, fine dance companies, reliable instructions on the sides of every box. Parliaments that know how to legislate, presidents who, however violently they differ, know how to transfer power, civil servants who really do know how to serve the civitas through many kinds and administrations of momentarily indispensable people.

The great conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott used to say that governing and politics were, like baking, not something you could read from a recipe, a set of instructions. And he was not entirely wrong - a constitution, no matter how many rights it guarantees or freedoms it enumerates, is meaningless without a healthy practice of politics.

But he was surely not completely right. There is more wisdom in recipes than those of us who pretend to kitchen expertise like to admit. I recall the late lawyer and writer John Mortimer's moving witness to how, in a corrupt Nigerian courtroom, lawyers and advocates working from a British model - and in wigs, no less - did bring about justice even in extremis. Instructions matter.

We speak often of how the family is the model small institution. But I wonder if we don't have hold of the wrong end of the spatula in that comparison, so to speak.

It is not that countries resemble families in their dependency on a fixed patriarchal authority. It is that strong countries, like healthy families, are self-healing organisms that have so dispersed their authority and sense of common purpose that they get along just fine when the patriarch passes, or is stranded in a Texas airport.

In life as we live it, there are no magic waffles and no indispensable men. There are really only family occasions, and reliable recipes.

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