I have a new piece up on Hilobrow, the great website for arcana obsessives co-edited by Josh Glenn, a friend and former editor and all-around frighteningly smart individual. It’s about Stephen Potter, the British humorist who published four books on how to one-up others without seeming like that’s what you’re doing. Potter actually coined the terms “gamesmanship” and “one-upmanship.” It’s terrific stuff. After being turned on to the stuff by a friend, I read everything he wrote in a week last year, and dashed off an essay which was promptly rejected by everyone. I was emailing with Josh not too long ago, mentioned I had this weird thing lying around, and he bit.
Here’s a sample, on his passage on using children to one-up your social betters, or, when needed, one-upping children.
If an opponent has managed to get inside your home and all other gambits have failed, Potter suggests training your child to walk in, look at the man, appear taken aback say something worriedly like, “Mummy, I don’t like that man.” The thinking is that children’s snap judgment is unerring, and that they can spot moral failings like dogs can spot ghosts. If you find yourself on the receiving end of such a maneuver, Potter recommends that revenge can be gotten at Christmas by buying the child a gift just a little bit too young for them (“Christmas Giftsmanship”). This is the only thing known to consistently offend children. “If the child is continuously burying itself in the corner with Lord Jim, give it a book about a wild wolf dog which saves a baby from an eagle,” Potter advises.