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A Shout From The Attic: The Esmé Years - 9

"Testing theories prevents a body from committing too many mistakes, especially in the area of pet theories where opinions can be formed and clung to that have no basis in fact,'' says Ronnie Bray, telling of a theory about drinking alone that was thoroughly and extensively disproved.

‘Bang!’ Goes Another Theory

Consultant psychiatrist at Storthes Hall Hospital, Dr John Samuel Hughes, told me to wait until I was as old as Humphrey Sutcliffe, our Principal Nurse Tutor, was and see how many theories I had left. It was a mild rebuke for a remark I had made about Humphrey’s sole affinity to McDougald’s Field Theory of human psychology. That was thirty years ago, and I have had many occasions to recall his words and confirm their truthfulness.

Testing theories prevents a body from committing too many mistakes, especially in the area of pet theories where opinions can be formed and clung to that have no basis in fact. It is easy to challenge the theories and opinions of others, but we humans tend to hold our own opinions and theories as apart from the common herd’s and so sacrosanct that a whole basketful of archbishops would spontaneously burst out into pious psalmody at their mere mention.

The most effective way of testing a theory is by practical experiment. That is, when the opinion lends itself to experiment. Two such tests spring to mind. The first one was conducted by no less a person than Louis Pasteur, the French chemist, to whom the French wine industry and we owe our healthy conditions.

It was widely asserted in Pasteur’s time that mice would spontaneously generate from dirty rags left in a wooden box. The reason for this common belief was that whole families of mice were to be found nesting in such places. Pasteur denounced this belief as foolish and unscientific as the parallel belief that moulds spontaneously generated on soup left to its own devices for several days.

Pasteur’s experiment to prove these theories false amounted to sealing the box with the dirty rags, and hermetically sealing the soup in glass and letting it age for a very long time. When the box was opened there were no mice, and when the seal on the month old soup was broken the soup was as fresh as the day it had been cooked, proving that the spontaneous generation notion was mere superstition.

A man I knew well undertook the second test. We worked together in the transport department of Bentley and Shaw’s Lockwood Brewery. I was a van driver, and the gentleman in question, Dick, was a wagon driver’s mate.

Dick was the least likely driver’s mate it is possible to imagine. He was five feet and none inches tall, and weighed in at less than two drenched sparrows, either of whose knees had more muscle than Dick possessed in his whole frame. Nevertheless, by some non-apparent strength he rolled out the barrels, rolled them in, slid them down the cellars, and rolled them in position and hoisted them on the gantries as if he was as big as a Shire horse.

After the full barrels and crates were safely in place, and the empties loaded safely onto the delivery wagon, the driver and Dick went into the bar to get the delivery and return notes signed to the tune of the usual pint of ale, this was before drinking and driving became separate sports.

One such time, the landlord and a customer were discussing what affected the rate at which men drank, especially to excess. The landlord had a pet theory, to which he treated his customer and the Brewerymen, that men only drink to excess when they are in company because sociability makes them stay longer in the pub and affords them more time to sup the soup.

The proposition of his argument was that if he were to set a drinker into his cellar and tell him that he is free to consume as much ale as he wants to, that the man will not get beyond two pints before he surfaces looking for company, because a lone man will not drink to excess.

It tickled the customer, interested the driver, and intrigued Dick, who told the landlord that he could prove his theory to be false. The landlord, having laid out his theory a little too grandly could do nothing but accept the challenge from the diminutive – "How much could he hold even if he were hollow, huh?" – former circus contortionist, ands told him that he had thirty minutes to abuse his cellar stock, opened the flap and let Dick descend the stairs into what was for him a veritable Aladdin’s Cave.

The flap closed after him, establishing his isolation, and denying him the faintest murmur from voices directly over his head, of the opinions aired with trenchant firmness, such as is common in God’s County, albeit none so firm as mine host’s.

They talked of football, Huddersfield Town’s chances of escaping relegation, why would anyone buy a mini car, as each of the trio sounded off in rote about the growing trend of people going abroad for their holidays: "Such a waste when Blackpool is only an hour’s train journey away, and even in the rain you can always find summat to do." A murmur of "Aye, tha can, that!" issuing from omnes, accompanied by sage nods, and followed by the lifting of glasses to lips in unisoned formation that would have made the Tiller Girls proud.

During the interregnum there came no sound from the man in the cellar. Dick had been forgotten, almost. A tad later than the appointed hour, when the innkeeper with the aid of his grandfather’s silver turnip realised that the occupant of his subterranean cavern had served a double period, the flap was raised and Lazarus summoned to come forth. But from the sullen depths of the whitewashed catacomb there came no sound. The reason for the noiseless silence is that Dick was a kind of gentleman who knew that not only is it rude to speak whilst drinking, it is also nigh on impossible!

The landlord scurried down the wooden steps, and then scurried back up, summoning Dick’s driver. "Here! Quick!" He’s drinking all my damned profits!" He said nothing that did not require an explanation mark!

Dick was happily wedged between two barrels, drinking from a cellarman’s sight glass, and showing signs of having done so frequently. Although Dick could not speak, he could still drink, and the barrels gave him the support he needed not to assume total horizontality. His legs had given way, but were now redundant as his elbows rested on the fat cheeks of the barrel either side of him, and his seat almost touched the front gantry rail, but his hand went to his mouth and tipped the glass into what seemed to the host to be the dimensions of Fingal’s cave.

The estimate, necessarily rough because of the intoxicated condition of the only eye-witness, was that doughty Dick had quaffed between ten and eighteen pints of free, voluntarily contributed beer. The owner’s theory lay in tatters, and so did his profit on at least one barrel of beer.

It took both men all their time to get the matchstick man up the stairs, and carry him outside. They poured him into the cab of the lorry and his driver delivered him to his lodgings and put him to bed. It was almost noon. The theory? Of course it could be true for some people, perhaps for many people. But the reason Dick drank is simply because he liked the stuff, so "Bang!" goes another theory.

The truth is that even theories that are mere fads and fashions are, at best, only temporary, lasting no longer than until they are been rigorously tested, or replaced by another theory that better matches the temper of the times.

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