Wednesday, October 20

Is Hamlet a small town? asked the grandfather. At least this generation can Google it | Life and Style

THEOne day when I was little, in the late 1970s, I guess, I was sitting with my grandfather and grandmother in the front room. My aunt was there too. My brother and I were watching television; Grandpa was reading the newspaper. At one point, he abruptly dropped his newspaper and asked, “Is Hamlet a small English town?” My aunt said no, it was a Danish prince. “Oh,” he said, before picking up his newspaper again. Apart from the noise of the television, there was silence. And that was that.

For whatever reason, this exchange has stuck with me for over 40 years. I think it was his tone of voice that suggested that the question had been vaguely bothering him for most of the 20th century. I feel a little sorry for him; If only you had the Internet at your disposal and the confidence to use it, you would have had your answer. There’s no need to idly wonder about things like that anymore, and there’s certainly no need to ask out loud and risk looking a bit silly. Not that he ever looked me in the eye like a fool; he was my hero.

Even though the answer to every question is at my fingertips, I constantly disappoint myself wondering about things for years without bothering to spend 15 seconds to get an answer. For example, I’ve been idly wondering what the difference is between shallots and onions for a good 30 years. This period covers the last decades of the pre-digital age, the invention of the Internet and its current ubiquity. I’m not proud to confess that until I Googled it yesterday morning, I still wasn’t sure. To be honest, the answer, when it arrived, was not worth the wait: “Shallots taste delicate and sweet. [sic] with a touch of acidity, while the onions provide a more intense heat ”. Oh right, I thought so.

On behalf of my grandfather, I googled his literary question. I recognize that this effort could be a sign that I am now rather scraping the barrel in my pursuit of confinement activities. I wrote: “Is Hamlet a small English town?” It turns out to be one of those questions that is offered to you in its entirety before you finish writing it. I love that. It reminds me of what teachers say about not being afraid to raise your hand because surely there will be someone else in the class, or, in this case, planet Earth, who will not know either.

So it’s disappointing that this search didn’t yield an instant answer. Instead, buried in a lawyer’s account of a planning dispute, was the definition of a village as “a small settlement, generally smaller than a town, and strictly (in Britain) one without a church.” I did not know, I did not know it. Not entirely uninteresting, I guess.

I refined my question, putting the word Shakespeare before Hamlet. This came up: “The noun village referred to a small town in Elizabethan times. But that sense of the word probably had nothing to do with the Shakespearean name of the main character in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Probably? Of course he didn’t! But where did the name come from? Either it turns out, from Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, or from the Danish mythological figure Amleth, recorded by the striking Saxo Grammaticus, who surely would have been churning out some good Scandinavian TV dramas if he were with us today.

I feel even more sorry for my grandfather. Not only could he have had a fairly quick answer to your long-held question, but he could also have spent many satisfied hours poking around interesting rabbit holes like this one. All he had to read, poor thing, was the Birmingham Evening Mail. A good title, no doubt, but still. I have resolved to keep a list of all those lingering questions. Then on my 75th birthday, I’ll settle into a nice easy chair and spend the rest of my days googling all the answers.

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