Wednesday, January 2, 2008

An Interview With Professor Higgins

Most people think Professor Higgins is a mere character in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, better known by the movie title My Fair Lady. But he’s not. He’s real. I tracked him down at his garden, where he was pulling flowers and cultivating weeds. He looked up when he saw me coming. “Professor Higgins?” I asked.

“How now brown cow,” he said.

I did not know how to respond to that, so I asked again. “You are Professor Higgins?”

“I am a professor and my name is Higgins, so what does that make me, sir?”

I felt sheepish, but I answered anyway. “It makes you Professor Higgins.”

“You’re damn right it does,” he answered. “If my name were Butler I would be Professor Butler.”

“That’s right,” I said. This was getting embarrassing.

“If I were a professor, that is. If I were not a professor I would be just plain old Butler,” he said.

I was speechless. I was trampling the crab grass of the most estimable professor of the English language. It almost seemed disrespectful. My wellies were stomping on sacred ground.

“But it’s Higgins!” he continued. Then he turned to his garden. “Damn roses. They keep trying to grow here and crowd out the crabgrass.”

“Everybody’s having that problem,” I said. I was trying to sound sympathetic, but don’t know how it came off. “Everybody’s having problems with roses coming up in their crabgrass,” I said. The truth was, I did not know anyone who was having that problem except him.

“And gladiolus, too,” Higgins said. “Just look at this.” He pointed at a luxuriant spray of glads with obvious contempt.

I had to admit, the flowers did contrast with the weeds he was growing. They seemed to contradict each other, to tell the truth. But I wanted to segue into the subject for which he was famous: the English language.

“Oh, I am through with all that English grammar and diction stuff,” he said. “Because of it I have no social life. No social life at all.”

I was shocked. “But I thought anyone who speaks as well as you would be invited everywhere,” I protested.

He acted as if he did not hear me. “Just the other day I said to a woman: ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain’ and do you know what she said?”

I admitted that I hadn’t a clue.

“She said to cut the weather report is what she said,” he said.

“Did you tell her that ‘In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen?’” I asked.

“I did,” he said. “And she gave me a lot of rot about global warming. We didn’t care a fig about that in Victorian days.”

I was shocked. “There is no respect anymore,” I said.

“An attitude in which I gleefully participate,” he said. “I gave her The Look and I told her to ‘A E I O You,’ with special emphasis on the ‘You.’”

“A quintessentially Higginsonian response,” I said. I meant it. I did not have any idea what that comment meant, but whatever I said, I did mean it, whatever I meant.

“It worked. She buggered off and another woman walked up,” he said. “I said:
‘How kind of you to let me come.’”

:”One of your most famous phrases,” I said.

“Indeed,” he responded.

“And?” I asked.

“She accused me of sexual harassment,” he said.

I explained to him that she must have misinterpreted the word “come.” Some people do that sort of thing nowadays. Everyone is so sensitive. It’s hard to say much of anything without someone getting her back up. “It does not sound as if your evening was going well,” I said.

“All the phrases in my repertoire. Nobody ever uses any of them,” he said.

“Indeed,” I agreed.

“How often does ‘The sixth sick sheikh’s sixth sheep’s sick’ come up in conversation?” he asked.

I had to agree. I had not heard that comment from anyone in quite a long time. Especially since sheikhs tend not to raise sheep.

“I just don’t know how to make small talk,” he said. “I am only comfortable here in my garden digging the roses out of my crabgrass.”

I left him at that point. I was going to ask him to sing the way Rex Harrison did in the movie. But I decided to let him be. Besides, I had an appointment with the great, great grandson of the man who invented the typewriter. I simply had to know how often he had been able to work QWERTYUIOP into everyday conversation and what the devil it meant.

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