It’s such a Princeton thing, and it annoys me. What is it that gives (or gave) John McPhee so much satisfaction in using his erudition as a kind of secret hand shake to the one reader in ten thousand who would get his reference?

What I am talking about?

Well, okay, so Playboy sent McPhee to Wimbledon back in 1970, right about the time my parents moved my brothers and me into a house a few miles down the road from McPhee’s home. And he did his own version of Hunter S. Thompson’s romp at the Kentucky Derby, which came out the same year in Scanlan’s Monthly. In fact, for all I know Thompson’s article may have prompted Playboy‘s editor Arthur Kretchmer to foot the bill for McPhee’s trip.

So, McPhee went over to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and hobnobbed with the upper crust there, which really wasn’t that much of a stretch for the Princeton and Cambridge-educated writer.

With that introduction, here you go:

The editor of the piece was the affable Arthur Kretchmer, who was soon to become Playboy’s editorial director, a position he held for thirty years. My conferences with him, always on the telephone, were light and without speed bumps as we made our way through the strawberries, the extinguishings, and the resurrections, until we came to the Members’ Enclosure.


McPhee is talking about the following excerpt from that 1970 article:

In the Members’ Enclosure, on the Members’ Lawn, members and their guests are sitting under white parasols, consuming best-end-of-lamb salad and strawberries in Devonshire cream. Around them are pools of goldfish. The goldfish are rented from Harrods. The members are rented from the uppermost upper middle class. Wimbledon is the annual convention of this stratum of English society, starboard out, starboard home.

Did you get that he’s referring to members of the Lawn Tennis and Croquet club here?

Good, because these were not the hoi polloi.

I think he got that across with the rented goldfish and Devonshire cream, don’t you?

But what’s with that “starboard out, starboard home” reference, his editor wanted to know.

Arthur Kretchmer said, “What does that mean?”

Assuming a tone of faintest surprise, I explained that when English people went out to India during the Raj, they went in unairconditioned ships. The most expensive staterooms were on the port side, away from the debilitating sun. When they sailed westward home, the most expensive staterooms were on the starboard side, for the same reason. And that is the actual or apocryphal but nonetheless commonplace etymology of the word “posh.” Those people in the All England Members’ Enclosure were one below Ascot: starboard out, starboard home.

I didn’t have a stopwatch with which to time the length of the silence on the other end of the line. I do remember what Kretchmer eventually said. He said, “Maybe one reader in ten thousand would get that.”

I said, “Look: you have bought thirteen thousand words about Wimbledon with no other complaint. I beg you to keep it as it is for that one reader.”

He said, “Sold!”

Which really brings me back to my whole “don’t hate me because I’m from Princeton thing.”

Because, you know, I was osmotically trained to view the world this way. By which I mean, who wouldn’t want to put something so esoteric in their Playboy feature that only the best-read cleverest one-in-ten-thousand reader would understand it?

But I think it’s a fucked up attitude. And I eventually very self-consciously rejected this and let the pendulum swing back quite a distance in the other direction.

So, in my writing, I quite deliberately set out never to attempt this kind of show-off business.

And it’s ironic that McPhee ends this piece talking about his vanity here without the slightest wink of apology. Because the article is about allusions and elicitation, and how ephemeral the shared experience between author and reader can be.

So, the wink is there, but it’s so deep down that you can easily miss it, which is sorta playful in an arrogant kind of way.

That’s not the only way the piece is brilliant yet inaccessible. He’s an artist well-honed in his craft.

And I doubt he cares whether or not you hate him for it.

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