‘Stet’ is, or at least was, in those days before the computer took the pen from our hands, a note written in a text by a proof reader. It meant ‘Ignore the change indicated here. Keep the original version. Don’t change anything!’
Today more than ever we need all things that do not change, things that go on, that can be counted on to be there when we come back from a journey, that are immutable and give us an anchor in this uncertain world.
Of course, this can be carried too far. Dr Johnson had a friend called John Taylor, and Johnson used to visit him every year. It seems that Taylor was fairly easy-going and not one to change things. Johnson said that if he left a small stone on Taylor’s mantelpiece it would still be there on his next visit a year later.
Business management theory loves change and devotes many pages to initiating it. Change is essential for efficiency, it seems. There is the constant need to offer something new, though many of us prefer the old model that worked well and could always be relied on. ‘Renovarse o morir’, say the Spanish. “Renew or die” But old customs die hard, and we all tend to resist change, as the following story shows.
The scene was a bright, sunny morning. A team from the Army were giving a display of skill and efficiency with a gun carriage. This gun dated from years before and had originally been drawn by a horse. However, it was still used as a display of teamwork and agility. In the grandstand the general was entertaining an important guest. The soldiers had to dismantle the gun, carry all the wheels and barrel and everything else over a high barrier, reassemble the gun the other side and then fire it. In they came with their gleaming Land Rover towing the enormous gun carriage. Quickly they took it all to pieces, passed these over the obstacle, put them all back together again and then fired the gun. They then saluted. It all went like clockwork.
But during the whole operation one man had been standing to attention a little apart from the rest of the team. The general’s guest asked, ‘What is that man doing?’
‘Which man?’ said the general.
‘The one standing on his own about ten paces from the gun.’
The general hesitated and then said, ‘Well, I’m not sure. I have never noticed him before.’
The general sent his adjutant to find out. After 10 minutes the adjutant hurried back looking rather worried.
‘That man is Number 5.’
‘But what does Number 5 do?’ asked the important guest.
The adjutant was sent off for more information and then, looking even more worried, he returned.
‘He’s the one who holds the horse.’
And so we move on to horses, and horses have left their mark on our way of life. Not so many years ago the horse was king and it is amazing how horses disappeared from our working world in little more than a generation. The smithy where horses were shod was an important part of the village. The most common surname in the country was Smith and perhaps it still is. There was a horseshoe above the door of most barns and outbuildings on the farms. It was supposed to bring good luck. Look out for them and you will still see them there today.
Yes, horses melted away but for the farmers the change from riding a horse to driving a car was not without its difficulties. A garage owner in Somerset told me years ago that his father would drive into his farmyard, pull back hard on the steering wheel and shout ‘Whoa there, you brute! Whoa!’ He never thought of applying the brake.
And so from horses to cars. People training to become taxi drivers in London have to know each street, alley and byway over an area of ten miles from Charing Cross. This is part of ‘The Knowledge’ and they are examined in ‘The Knowledge’ before receiving a taxi licence. Why ten miles? Because that was the limit a horse could manage in the 19th century! Old customs die hard.
Change is fine in the world of business where just to stay afloat is an achievement these days, but is it really so necessary in life in general?
Let us praise the familiar, the things that stay the same, the things we can count on: old friends we feel at ease with, old books we know and love, and our home with our pictures, photos, easy chair and our garden tools. These are things that are always there, waiting patiently for us to go back to them like Mole’s house in the fields near the river where the wind blew through the willows.
When Mole went back to the home he had abandoned in a fit of pique while spring cleaning, he saw “familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancour… it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.”
Take care of the things that wait for you and are always there.