Shrinking violets


I’ve just finished a book called Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness. ‘Shrinking violet’ is not, in fact, a phrase heard much these days: along with the word ‘wallflower’, it has a pre-1960s feel to it. In Howard Jacobson’s autobiographical novel The Mighty Walzer, the Shrinking Violets are the central character’s shy aunts as described by his father, who refers to them as if they were ‘an established showbiz group like the Andrews Sisters’. (Jacobson, by the way, has described himself as an acutely shy child who became a writer ‘because I was afraid of the world and wanted to remake it’.)

A Google search for ‘shrinking violet’ today brings up links to a weight reduction method that women may use to magically ‘reduce by a dress size in one treatment’. It seems to involve wrapping oneself in a heat-inducing cling film-type material full of essential oils that trigger lipolysis, which breaks down fats so they can be processed by the liver. It promises, in other words, a literal rather than a figurative shrinking – the only type of shrinking now deemed acceptable in a society ruled by what Susan Cain calls the ‘extrovert ideal’.

Someone once suggested to me that writing a book was like dropping a stone down a really deep well. The stone might rattle along the sides of the well’s walls a bit, to remind you of its continued existence, and then years later you might hear the tiniest plop as it hit the water table. I think the metaphor was meant to be consoling, to remind you never to give up hope of a long-delayed response to your work. But instead it made me worry that writing was a one-sided and fluky affair, with no guarantee that it would ever find a reader. Anyway, I have thrown in my stone, and I will come back in a year to see if I can hear a little splash.

Too too shy-making

A word I discovered while writing my shyness book: ‘shy-making’. In his 1930 novel Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh had nailed the polarising private slang of the bright young things of the previous decade, in which everything was either ‘divine’ or ‘bogus’ or socially mortifying: ‘too, too shaming’, ‘perfectly sheepish’ or ‘shy-making’. ‘As soon as I get to London,’ say Agatha Runcible in Waugh’s novel, ‘I shall just ring up every Cabinet Minister and all the newspapers and give them all the most shy-making details.’ The word reappears in Brideshead Revisited, published 15 years later. On showing Charles Ryder the art nouveau chapel at Brideshead, Sebastian Flyte says, ‘It is a bit shy-making, isn’t it?’ 

Waugh learned this vocabulary from the ‘Guinness set’. For this group of rich and fashionable young people, supposedly inedible food, or sometimes cocaine, was ‘ill-making’. The right antidote – or alcohol – was ‘very better making’. But someone opening the curtains while a bright young thing was still in bed and hung over was ‘blind-making’.

Uninspirational quotes

One of the new literary forms of our age is that bastard son of the La Rochefoucauldian aphorism, the ‘inspirational quote’. The kind of tea-towel philosophy that used to be restricted to tea towels is now everywhere: on T-shirts; plastered on to whiteboards in the foyers of Tube stations; scribbled on chalkboards outside coffee shops; and, especially, pasted on to jpegs that are then posted all over social networks, with a background of a blue sky, a sunset or a seascape, or a picture of Gandhi or Steve Jobs with a faraway look. In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take. If you’re brave enough to say goodbye, life will reward you with a new hello. Goals are just dreams with deadlines. Sometimes misattributed, often untrue and invariably banal, they are liked, favourited, shared and forgotten, the aphoristic equivalent of a sugar rush. As an urgent corrective, I suggest that we share some uninspirational quotes. Here is a modest start:





Animals with personality


In the BBC children’s programme Animal Magic, which ran from 1962 to 1983, there were filmed inserts, shot at Bristol Zoo, in which the presenter Johnny Morris played a zookeeper. Morris would also impersonate and voice the animals, who acquired names and personalities – Christina and Wendy the elephants, Dottie, the French ring-tailed lemur (named after Dorothy Lamour), Lucy the llama, Brolly the umbrella cockatoo, and so on. Morris gave each animal human traits: giraffes were patrician aristocrats, sea lions were crusty old generals, llamas looked down their long noses with a withering sense of superiority. The Natural History unit was always uneasy about this anthropomorphism, which may have contributed eventually to the show being cancelled, much to Morris’s dismay.

However, I discovered while writing my shyness book that the study of ‘animal personality’ – an oxymoron, surely, because only a person can have a personality? – is a flourishing field. One of the central concepts in this field is what is called the ‘shy-bold continuum’. In all animals (perhaps including humans), so the theory goes, there is a trade-off. We have to be bold in order to find food and reproduce (very important), but also cautious and risk-averse to avoid being eaten by someone or something else (even more important, perhaps).

The serious scientific study of evolved shyness in animals began with the domestic dog. One study conducted in 1944 found that out of 178 dogs bred in a laboratory at Cornell University, 46 per cent were shy and unfriendly, in spite of all attempts to befriend them. They traced this back to the influence of a very shy Basset Hound brood bitch called Paula, known as a bad ‘fear-biter’, who had produced a third of the puppies.

The study of animal personality proceeds by neat and nifty little experiments. Anne Hedrick, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, collected male field crickets from a football pitch and divided them up according to the length of their trills. When she rehoused them in laboratory terrariums, the long singers took longer to venture out than the short singers. They were offsetting the greater risk of long singing with greater shyness. Meanwhile, the marine biologist Mark Briffa, studying anemones along the Devon and Cornwall coasts, used a small jet of sea water to trigger their ‘startle response’, causing them to retract their tentacles, and then measured how long it took for them to return to a normal state. He discovered, of course, that anemones showed differing levels of shyness and boldness.

The shy-bold continuum has now been found in hundreds of animals: western grass spiders, limpets, water striders, sharks, great tits. That certain animals are ‘shy’ has of course been known for centuries by the humans who try to catch them. ‘Fish have temperaments various as their captors: they are shy, bold, cowardly, volatile, sulky, or determined’, wrote William Peard in A Year of Liberty: or Salmon Angling in Ireland in 1867.


From Hugh Aldersey-Williams’s new book, The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century:

‘It is hard now to recreate a sense of the almost complete impossibility of not being a religious believer in seventeenth-century England. But as I enter the Apple Store, systematically laid out with its central entrance door and an attractively illuminated high table at the far end, a parallel comes to mind. Digital technology seems to fill a large part of the mental space we reserve for faith. (Art, which is often put up as a candidate, is the opium only of a minority.) We depend on technology for the smooth running of our daily lives, if not for our salvation. We make obeisance to it, we feel obliged to buy into the whole package, rather than selecting and rejecting individual technologies. There is the familiar choice between minutely differentiated sects (Apple or Microsoft), but all must share the same basic creed. Upgrades are like revisions of dogma in which we have no say, but which we are bound to go along with anyway. To reject the technological is to declare oneself a heretic, a position as inconceivable now as declaring oneself an atheist in the 1600s.’ (p. 212)