Excerpts from


Stephen Potter



Counter Expert

I ALWAYS BELIEVE that some kind of ABC of counter expert play is the best grounding for the young Lifeman. Without any special knowledge, without indeed any education whatever, it is possible not only to keep going in conversation, but, sometimes, to throw grave doubts on the value of expert knowledge in general. There is no finer spectacle than the sight of a good Lifeman, so ignorant that he can scarcely spell the simplest word, making an expert look like a fool in his own subject, or at any rate interrupting him in that stupefying flow, breaking the deadly one upness of the man who, say, has really been to Russia, has genuinely taken a course in psychiatry, has actually read history at Oxford, or has written a book on something.

A few simple rules, then, for a start.

The Canterbury Block

We always encourage youngsters to practise as they learn. Why not an easy exercise to warm up? The expert on international relations is talking. He is in full spate. How can he be jolted? (R. Bennett’s variant).

EXPERT: There can be no relationship based on a mutual dependency of neutral markets. Otto Hüsch would not have allowed that. He was in Vienna at the time...

LIFEMAN (As if explaining to the rest of the audience): It was Hüsch who prevented the Archbishop from taking office in Sofia.

A suggestion only. But no matter how wild Lifeman’s quiet insertion may be, it is enough to create a pause, even a tiny sensation.

Nor is the typical Block necessarily complex. The beauty of the best Canterbury is its deadly simplicity, in the hands of an expert. Six words will suffice.

EXPERT (Who has just come back from a fortnight in Florence): And I was glad to see with my own eyes that this Left-wing Catholicism is definitely on the increase in Tuscany.

THE CANTERBURY: Yes, but not in the South.

‘Yes, but not in the South,’ with slight adjustments, will do for any argument about any place, if not about any person. It is an impossible comment to answer. And for maximum irritation remember, the tone of voice must be ‘plonking.’

Here, then, we have two forms of what is known as the Canterbury Block. For ‘plonking,’ see next paragraph.

CANTERBURY BLOCK (‘Not in the South’ gambit). To give added effect to this phrase, some Lifemen carry a small packet of a dozen districts chosen at random with the southern area shaded. Tuscany (a), Rhodesia (b), and St Petersburg (c) are suitable.

What is Plonking?

If you have nothing to say, or, rather, something extremely stupid and obvious, say it, but in a ‘plonking’ tone of voice – i.e. roundly, but hollowly and dogmatically. It is possible, for instance, to take up and repeat with slight variation, in this tone of voice, the last phrase of the speaker. Thus:

TYPOGRAPHY EXPERT: ... and roman lower-case letters of Scotch and Baskerville have two or three thou. more breadth, which gives a more generous tone, an easier and more spacious colour, to the full page –

YOURSELF: The letters ‘have width.’

T.E.: Exactly, exactly, exactly – and then if –

YOURSELF: It is a widening.

T.E.: What? – Oh yes, yes.

This is the lightest of trips, yet, if properly managed, the tone of voice, will suggest that you can afford to say the obvious thing, because you have approached your conclusion the hard way, through a long apprenticeship of study.

‘Plonking’ of a kind can be made by the right use of quotation or pretended quotation. (See under Conversationship, p.88.) Here is the rough format:

MILITARY EXPERT (Beginning to get into his stride, and talking now really well): There is, of course, no precise common denominator between the type of mind which, in matters of military science, thinks tactically, and the man who is just an ordinary pugnacious devil with a bit of battlefield instinct about him.

YOURSELF (Quietly plonking): Yes, ... ‘Where equal mind and contest equal go.’

This is correct quotation plonking (a) because it is not a genuine quotation and (b) because it is meaningless. The Military Expert must either pass it over, smile vaguely, say ‘yes,’ or in the last resort, ‘I don’t quite get...’ In any case, it stops flow, and suggests that whatever he is saying, you got there first.

I was never in Vladivostock

These early gambits mastered, the student can begin his study of more advanced expertship. Here is a slightly more complex ploy against the man, always dangerous, who has actually been there.

This expert can only be attacked on his own ground. And the basis of attack is to take if possible one foreign place where you have actually been. A convenient one for young British Draftees who have spent their army year in Germany is Munster Lager, transit and demobilization camp, well known to them, but entirely unknown to anybody over the age of twenty-one. Munster Lager is good, because it can be pronounced, by variation, as if it was a placename of any country. The conversation goes like this. Subject, say, Fishing Rights on Russia’s Eastern Seaboard. The expert coming in to the attack:

TRAVEL EXPERT: Well, I don’t know, but when I was in Vladivostock, I knew there was going to be trouble. Nyelinsky was on the warpath even then, and I was fortunate enough to meet his staff with the Korean Councillor.


TRAVEL EXPERT: The local papers were front-paging it day after day. I soon sensed a very nasty situation, even if it didn’t blow up then. It wasn’t a very comfortable visit, but I was glad I’d been, afterwards.

SELF: Yes.


SELF: I was going to say – I’m sorry.


SELF: I was only going to say that though I was never in Vladivostock, I did spend some months in Munster Lager, not a million miles away. (The pronunciation can be blurred into something like Man Stalagin.)


SELF: Of course, I was working as a stevedore among the dockers and porters... I didn’t see much of the high-ups, I’m afraid. But, Lord, I feel I understood the people – the cutters and the quay-cleaners, the dossmen and the workers on the factory fringe. The wives waiting on the quayside, waiting with their children. I needn’t say where my sympathies lay.

Often the Travel Expert is completely shut up by this kind of talk; but it is not for beginners. The clever Lifeman can continue in this vein indefinitely, without ever having to say, or not, that he has been in Asia, or that, in fact, he has not.

Go on Talking

A very small probe, which yet is not ineffective, has been used by Cogg-Willoughby, who has been fairly successful with a series of counterings from the psychiatrist’s angle.

The expert holds the floor. His audience is submissive. Cogg waits, attentive. Sooner or later the expert will say, ‘But I’m talking too much’ – always a prelude to talking still more. Or, ‘What do you think,’ he may even say, simply.

EXPERT: But you say. What do you think?


EXPERT: But I have been going on!

COGG-WILLOUGHBY: I know. But it’s good. It’s right. I knew as soon as I came in you were happy. You – you look so natural...

EXPERT: Natural?

COGG-WILLOUGHBY: Yes, it’s all right: don’t take any notice of what I say. It’s good.


COGG-WILLOUGHBY: It means that you’re what we call happy. Go ahead, we’re all listening to you.

Cogg was extraordinarily successful with this sequence for a time, and it led him to explore, curiously enough, the field of counter psychiatry. Cogg’s Anti Psyke, as it came to be called, is not well known, and I have been asked to publish a note on it here. He had two principal tactics, and trained himself to make a spontaneous choice of either.

Tactic One, his favourite, was used against direct attack by an accredited psycho-analyst. This would be the shape of the dialogue – or at any rate these were the words I noted down when he was set against Krausz Ebenfeld. Imagine, if you can, the thick Slovene accent of the one and the quiet Cambridge tones of Cogg for contrast:

COGG: I expect you are always observing and analysing, Dr Ebenfeld.

EBENFELD: It is my job.

COGG: You will make me self-conscious.

EBENFELD: Why is that? It is what you do when you are not conscious that interests me. Do you know that you caress the back of your neck with your left hand when you speak to me?

COGG (who has been doing this on purpose): No. Really?

EBENFELD: Do you know why that is?

COGG: Well – you mean...

EBENFELD: You had a brother or young cousin who was a fine swimmer, yes?

COGG: Rather!

EBENFELD: And you perhaps were not much of a swimmer. Yes?

COGG (very warmly): How glad I am to hear you say that.


COGG: The doctrine of ’95, supported by you of all people.

EBENFELD: Ninety-five what?

COGG: Back to the founder of all founders – and how rightly. Hardt’s doctrine, as my own father taught it to me.

EBENFELD: Yes – Hardt...

COGG: How well did Freud say, in his queer English, ‘He is my look up to. I stand to him – pupil.’

‘That is very interesting,’ says Ebenfeld. But he realized he was gambited. Later Cogg even reduced Sophie Harmon, the great lay psychiatrist, to silence.

SOPHIE: You have a limp?


SOPHIE: You were dragging your feet as you crossed the room.

COGG (smelling a rat): Was I?

SOPHIE: You are not satisfied, fulfilled, today?


SOPHIE: You have two motives pulling different ways.

COGG: My limp, you mean?

SOPHIE: Perhaps.

COGG (lowering his voice yet speaking more distinctly): Perhaps. Or just an old weakness of the paradeltoid?

SOPHIE: Perhaps.

Sophie keeps her head, but she is ployed, and Cogg knows it, knowing that she never took anatomy.

It is easy to bungle Counter Psychiatry, which is of course, a huge subject (see end of this chapter). But it is essential, we now believe, to work at these opening exercises before the more intricate problems are attempted – before dealing, that is to say, with the experts in painting and music, politics and philosophy.

To murmur ‘exhibitionist’ or ‘Œdipus’ or just to whisper the one word ‘aunt’ when any rival is in full flow is a fine ploy, equalling Lifemanship at its best.

NOTE. – For ‘incest’ read ‘aunt’ throughout.

Stephen Potter, Lifemanship, 1950

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