Has anybody read Three Men on the Bummel (sequel to Three Men on a Boat)? Parts of it are quite funny, including this extract when the (English) heroes are testing a guide to English conversation for German travellers and they go to a boot shop in London using only the phrases recommended in the book:
"We stopped the cab at a boot shop a little past Astley's Theatre that looked the sort of place we wanted. It was one of those overfed shops that the moment their shutters are taken down in the morning disgorge their goods all round them. Boxes of boots stood piled on the pavement or in the gutter opposite. Boots hung in festoons about its doors and windows. Its sun-blind was as some grimy vine, bearing bunches of black and brown boots. Inside, the shop was a bower of boots. The man, when we entered, was busy with a chisel and hammer opening a new crate full of boots.
George raised his hat, and said "Good-morning."
The man did not even turn round. He struck me from the first as a disagreeable man. He grunted something which might have been "Good-morning," or might not, and went on with his work.
George said: "I have been recommended to your shop by my friend, Mr. X."
In response, the man should have said: "Mr. X. is a most worthy gentleman; it will give me the greatest pleasure to serve any friend of his."
What he did say was: "Don't know him; never heard of him."
This was disconcerting. The book gave three or four methods of buying boots; George had carefully selected the one centred round "Mr. X," as being of all the most courtly. You talked a good deal with the shopkeeper about this "Mr. X," and then, when by this means friendship and understanding had been established, you slid naturally and gracefully into the immediate object of your coming, namely, your desire for boots, "cheap and good." This gross, material man cared, apparently, nothing for the niceties of retail dealing. It was necessary with such an one to come to business with brutal directness. George abandoned "Mr. X," and turning back to a previous page, took a sentence at random. It was not a happy selection; it was a speech that would have been superfluous made to any bootmaker. Under the present circumstances, threatened and stifled as we were on every side by boots, it possessed the dignity of positive imbecilitiy. It ran:- "One has told me that you have here boots for sale."
For the first time the man put down his hammer and chisel, and looked at us. He spoke slowly, in a thick and husky voice. He said:
"What d'ye think I keep boots for--to smell 'em?"
He was one of those men that begin quietly and grow more angry as they proceed, their wrongs apparently working within them like yeast.
"What d'ye think I am," he continued, "a boot collector? What d'ye think I'm running this shop for--my health? D'ye think I love the boots, and can't bear to part with a pair? D'ye think I hang 'em about here to look at 'em? Ain't there enough of 'em? Where d'ye think you are--in an international exhibition of boots? What d'ye think these boots are--a historical collection? Did you ever hear of a man keeping a boot shop and not selling boots? D'ye think I decorate the shop with 'em to make it look pretty? What d'ye take me for--a prize idiot?"
I have always maintained that these conversation books are never of any real use. What we wanted was some English equivalent for the well-known German idiom: "Behalten Sie Ihr Haar auf."
Nothing of the sort was to be found in the book from beginning to end. However, I will do George the credit to admit he chose the very best sentence that was to be found therein and applied it. He said:.
"I will come again, when, perhaps, you will have some more boots to show me. Till then, adieu!"
With that we returned to our cab and drove away, leaving the man standing in the centre of his boot-bedecked doorway addressing remarks to us. What he said, I did not hear, but the passers-by appeared to find it interesting. "