Monday, January 9, 2012

In Praise of the Quick Retort

I don't know about you, but I'm highly envious of people who seem to be able to come up with the perfect retort, seemingly without even thinking. I tend to be of those who thinks of (what I consider to be) just the right remark - about 2 hours after it's needed! You could say I'm not that quick on my feet.

I recall a couple of really great instances of "the perfect response" from earlier days in other places.

The first involves Gerard Debreu and Richard Manning, both of whom are sadly no longer with us. It was 1972 in the Department of Economics at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand. I was a Ph.D. student, and as such I had "dining rights" in the department's "tea room". Faculty would gather there, mid-morning and mid-afternoon to chat and enjoy some refreshments. Gerard was on his second or third visit to the department, and although this was pre-Nobel days for him, he was awe-inspiring company!

Richard was on faculty, and could always be relied on for a pithy comment. This was pre-(economic) reform days in New Zealand. The place was an economic disaster! There were exchange controls, a fixed exchange rate, import quotas for just about everything......you name it, they had it!

Gerard came in one morning and opined that the price of everything in New Zealand seemed to be ridiculously high. He was absolutely right, of course, especially relative to disposable income. There were a few rather defensive murmurings to the effect that "surely it can't be that bad."

Inevitably, he threw down the challenge: "Well, tell me one thing here (in N.Z.) that's cheap!"

Quick as a flash, Richard responded: "The currency!"

I wish I could have thought to say that!

The second tale is set at Monash University (in Melbourne, Australia), a few years later - probably around 1980 - when I was on faculty there. The weekly economics seminar was underway, the speaker being the eminent Post-Keynesian, Geoff. Harcourt. Geoff. was still at the University of Adelaide at that stage. Shortly after, he returned to the University of Cambridge, where he ultimately became President of Jesus College.

The geography of the Menzies Building, where the seminar was being held, is of some importance here. The washrooms were (are?) located just off the lobbies in the centre of the building. They alternated by gender as you went up from one floor to another. On one floor, you'd go left for the male washroom, and right for the female one. On the next floor you'd go right for males, left for females, etc.

In retrospect, there was a pleasing and predictable symmetry to all of this!

It was also indicative of the times that the signs on the washroom doors read "Ladies" and "Gentlemen".

Well, the seminar room in which Geoff. was speaking was just a little way down the corridor from the men's washroom. His seminar had been underway for some time, and one rather beligerent individual had been interrupting constantly, mostly with irritatingly petty comments or questions. He was being rather disruptive, but Geoff. (a highly seasoned speaker) was unfazed.

You'll guess by the date that these were "chalk and talk" days, and Geoff. was certainly old-school when it came to such matters. He was writing on the blackboard, his back to the audience, when the disgruntled trouble-maker left the room - very noisily.

Without turning from the board or  breaking his writing, Geoff. sensed his departure. Just as this individual reached the door, and in mid-sentence, Geoff. advised him: "It's the second door on the left, and you can ignore the sign on the door!" 

Ouch!

© 2012, David E. Giles

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