Stephen Potter: Life Among the Acquaintances

By Ellis WeinerMay 18, 2011

Stephen Potter: Life Among the Acquaintances

THE WORLD IS DIVIDED, not into two kinds of people, but three: friends and loved ones (however occasionally hateful), social and professional acquaintances, and complete strangers. The first group is the smallest and the third, which comprises essentially all of humanity, is the largest. But the second is where the action is — if, by "action," we mean competition, rivalry, and an enforced obedience to, or sanctioned subjugation of, others.

Life among those people isn't a carnival (pace The Band), a cockeyed caravan (Preston Sturges), or a cabaret (Liza!). It's a genteel slug-fest, occasionally assuaged by the assistance and support of allies and the soothing indifference of the masses, and not just Stephen Potter (who?), but all of literature, we might say, analyzes and illustrates this basic quasi-Darwinian fact: to show us how people do or should interact and what consequences might follow therefrom.

But who has time for literature? We're busy. What we need is a handbook of tips and strategies for getting along in the world of those not-quite-strangers. And what we want is one that's fun to read, of course.

Well, we have it. Actually we have six, of which the three best still seem to be easily available, if not literally in print. They were written by a man who started as a professor of English literature and ended as an institution, or at least as close to it as a humorist can get.


Stephen Meredith Potter was born Feb 1 1900 and left school during the final months of WWI. Although drafted into the army, he saw no action, being discharged almost immediately when the end of the war brought demobilization. It was on to Oxford, where he studied English. He then turned pro as a lecturer at Birbeck College at the University of London, and became an expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1929 he published The Young Man, a well-received (but today unobtainable) novel and a study of D.H. Lawrence, the first book-length work on the author, published just days before Lawrence's death. There followed, respectably enough, three scholarly books about Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Potter edited the Nonesuch Press Coleridge (1933) and an edition of Sara Coleridge's letters to Thomas Poole (Minnow Among Tritons, 1934), and his most important academic work, Coleridge and S.T.C. (1935). Its reviews, as so many are, were positive but qualified.

In 1937 Potter published his first purely satirical work, The Muse in Chains, concerning the teaching of English literature. That same year he left academia for more remunerative pastures and joined the BBC full-time, at first producing and writing documentaries and literary features. In 1943 he began a collaboration with the exhaustingly hyphenated actress-singer-songwriter-writer Joyce Grenfell on a series of spoof instruction programs, including "How to Talk to Children," "How to Listen to Radio," and "How to Give a Party." Potter also became the drama critic of the New Statesman and a book critic for the News Chronicle.

Scribble, scribble; busy, busy. It was a life but not quite a living, and the Potters had young children to raise. When a brutal winter's coal shortage necessitated the rationing of electricity and the government curtailed production and broadcast routines at the BBC, Potter took advantage of the downtime to write The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship. The book was aimed, then, at a British public exhausted by the war, depressed at the continuing of rationing, and uncertain of just what-aside from 450,000 dead, a labor shortage, depleted national resources, and a reputation for triumphant pluck-had been "won." Potter's books, aside from the very rare allusion to a character's military rank or wartime posting, deal with none of these grave issues. Instead, he demonstrates, in Gamesmanship, "The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating." He will go on, in five more such books, to instruct us in how to get an edge and keep it in various aspects of life ("How to Make People Feel Awkward About Religion"), wooing ("Aids to the Envisagement of Post-Marital Behavior Deterioration") and, in a fitting capstone to his career, golf.

Setting the historical and academic tone of Gamesmanship at the outset, "Potter," the narrator, claims that the idea for the book actually came to him sixteen years earlier. It was in 1931, purportedly during a doubles tennis match with C.E.M. Joad (a real-life philosopher and popularizer), that Potter was present for what would, for the ages, be known as "Joad's Request." The pair were playing against two younger, "fitter" players, who were essentially killing them. Joad had just (barely) returned a shot that was obviously out, slamming into the rear stop-netting. Joad then "in an even tone" called across the net: "Kindly say clearly, please, whether the ball was in or out."

Potter goes on:

Crude to our ears, perhaps. A Stone-Age implement. But beautifully accurate gamesmanship for 1931. For the student must realize that these two young men were both in the highest degree charming, well-mannered young men, perfect in their sportsmanship and behavior.

Naturally, both young men defer to the older Joad and, while they "thought it was out," offer a do-over. Joad, impeccably, declines. "No, I don't want to have it again. I only want you to say clearly, if you will, whether the ball is in or out." Après tennis, the revelation:

There is nothing more putting off to young university players than a slight suggestion that their etiquette or sportsmanship is in question. How well we know this fact, yet how often we forget to make use of it. Smith sent a double-fault to me, and another double-fault to Joad. He did not get in another ace service till halfway through the third set of a match which incidentally we won.

...For me, it was the birth of gamesmanship.

And for us, it was the birth of the Potter voice: that mock-pedantic tone of winning modesty and warm condescension. The writerly flourish ("a Stone Age implement"). The gloss on (and exploitation of) British manners. The lofty style and abstract, theorizing treatment of a topic of supreme triviality. This is an extension of Potter's and Grenfell's "how to" series combined with his Muse in Chains faux-academic approach. It is mock-self-help for a generation of educated, literate readers, before the term "self-help" itself existed.

Potter gets off on exactly the right foot, not, as a brash American writing, say, Looking Out For Number One, or The Rules, might, by presenting his findings as revolutionary or boldly revived for modern use, but rather by offering secondary "notes" on material with which he assumes we are already familiar. "When questioned about the etiquette of gamesmanship — so important for the young player — I talk about Fidgets." He alludes to receiving letters from gamesmen "from all parts of the country." He cites other authorities: "In my own view (but compare Motherwell) there is only one correct time when the gamesman can give advice...".

Gamesmanship consists largely of ploys to unnerve, distract, cause doubt — to break flow. Much of it concerns being the opposite of the opponent: dress well if he is sloppy, or vice-versa. Show zeal and "fun" if he is dour; if he is flippant, affect the reluctantly humorless concentration of one for whom games, too, are a serious part of life.

And, as always, adhere to — or pretend to adhere to, which is the same thing — the principle of good sportsmanship. If you are to express irritation, do so on the other fellow's behalf. In billiards, e.g., the Gamesman should suddenly interrupt his Layman opponent as he lines up a shot, and say, with regard to two onlookers who have remained scrupulously silent, "Are they annoying you?"


GAMESMAN: Compton and Peters.

LAYMAN: It's all right.

Of course it is. But Layman's concentration and rhythm will have been impaired, to Gamesman's benefit.

It is even possible to lose triumphantly. Since, in chess, the main goal "is to enhance your reputation" (rather than win any particular game), we are introduced to Potter's Opening, in which you make any three opening moves, and then resign.

SELF: Good. Excellent. (Opponent has just made his third move). I must resign, of course.


SELF:'re bound to take my Bishop after sixteen moves, unless...unless...And even then I lose my castle three moves later.

OPP: Oh, yes.

SELF: Unless you sacrifice there, which, of course, you wouldn't.

OPP: No.

SELF: Nice game.

OPP: Yes.

SELF: Pretty situation...very pretty situation. Do you mind if I make a note of it? The Chess News usually publishes any stuff I send them.

The book's appeal to its first readers was amplified by line drawings and diagrams executed by Lt. Col. Frank Wilson, (about whom I know precious little, other than that he also illustrated a full-color field guide to British Army uniforms with the perfect title, Regiments at a Glance). Wilson would go on to illustrate five more of Potter's books, in a style that evolved from how  — to cutaways and penny — dreadful cross-hatching to more satirical, New Yorker-ish cartoon scenarios.

After an inauspicious launch, Gamesmanship became a cult hit and then a huge best-seller. "Yes," as the Gamesman is advised to say, to undercut whomever holds the floor at a business meeting, "but how?" One possible answer is that Potter was not in fact satirizing the world as it then was, because the world as it then was was in a state of momentous but not quite visible transition. An entire generation of young British men had returned from the war bullied by the brutality and tedium of war into a shell-shocked adulthood. Churchill was out; Atlee was in. Labour's Welfare State, promising security "from the cradle to the grave," had just begun. Seven years after the Blitz and Dunkirk, dreary middle-class conformity must have seemed like a jolly good idea, or at any rate was too new to have been found wanting. In 1947, the Angry Young Men were still cranky teenagers. John Osborne was eighteen. John Lennon was seven.

Potter was 47, born and raised in another world: the idyllic, trauma-free Edwardian society evoked in his 1959 autobiography Steps to Immaturity. It is this golden period before World War II that Gamesmanship satirizes, when the members of the middle class aspired to be ladies and gentlemen, and not — as would soon be the case —beatniks, hippies, Mods, Rockers, rudies, yobs, or punks. Potter was reminding people of a nicer, or at least more familiar, late imperial era, even while poking, and stabbing, fun at it.

In any case, it's possible the book's success was a bit too huge: Potter's second son, Julian, writing in Stephen Potter at the BBC (2004) , thinks his father was somewhat overwhelmed by it. Having spent the unexpected financial windfall it provided, Potter was faced with having to make up the back taxes on all that income, and was consequently "inspired" to write Gamesmanship's two sequels.

Thus, Lifemanship, or "The Art of Getting Away With It Without Being an Absolute Plonk" (1950), which is essentially a compilation of magazine pieces published in Punch, The Atlantic, and other popular magazines. Now the "lifemen" have a sort of informal club house, the "'H.Q.' of the Lifemanship Trust, 681 Station Road, Yeovil". Here, too, is the first appearance of Potter's regular group of semi-sketched characters, certified Lifemen with varying areas of expertise, including Gattling-Fenn, Odoreida, Cogg-Willoughby, and others.

Having, in the first book, imported into the realm of games some of the strategies and tactics derived from everyday life (distracting flattery, false concern, militant disingenuousness, et al.), here Potter reverses the equation and applies the principles of Gamesmanship to various aspects of daily living: "In conversation play, the important thing is to get in early and stay there. There are always some slow or feeble-witted people in any conversation group who will turn their heads towards the man who gets going first." Every social exchange can, and should, be exploited for purposes of being one-up on the other (or "opponent"). But the Lifeman knows that he will meet other Lifemen equipped with blocking ploys and gambits — "Another opening, more difficult to guard against, is the encouraging personal remark aimed at your chief rival, e.g., 'Good lord, how do you always manage to look so well?'" — and prepares himself accordingly:

LIFEMAN: You're looking wonderfully relaxed.

I have noted J. Pinson's reply (known as "Pinson's Reply") to this clever gambit:

LIFEMAN: You're looking wonderfully relaxed...I thought something good had happened to you.

PINSON: You're looking tremendously relaxed, too.

LIFEMAN (counter-riposting): Ah, but I'm not looking nearly so relaxed as you are.

PINSON: Oh, I don't think I'm very relaxed.

LIFEMAN: Oh, yes, you are.

Two lifemen may go on this way for twenty minutes...

Is any aspect of human life immune to gambits and counter-life-ing? Happily, no. Take religion. "The man who lets it be known that he is religious is in a strong life position. There is one basic rule. It is: go one better." Thus, when your weekend host and his wife urge you to accompany them to their church on a Sunday morning:

Do not mumble in reply to this: "No, I'm afraid...I'm not awfully good at that sort of thing..."

On the contrary, deepen and intensify your voice, lay your hand on her shoulder and say, "Elsa" (calling her by her Christian name perhaps for the first time):

"Elsa, when the painted glass is scattered from the windows, and the roof is open to the sky, and the ordinary simple flowers grow in the crevices of pew and transept — then and not till then will your church, as I believe, be fit for our worship."

Yes, but what is one to do when confronting actual experts: people who really do, in sharp contrast to the Lifeman, know what they are talking about? That, happily, places them at a height from which they can but fall. An effective breaking-of-flow can be achieved with a simple Canterbury Block of six words:

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.

And it is here we learn about plonking.

If you have nothing to say, or, rather, something extremely stupid or obvious, say it, but in a "plonking" tone of voice - i.e. roundly, but hollowly and dogmatically...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.

Lifemanship topics include Conversationship, Weekendmanship, Woomanship, and Writership — not to mention Dedicationship ("A.C.Y. Davis invented a means of wording his dedications so that criticism of his book was practically impossible, e.g., 'TO PHYLLIS, in the hope that one day God's glorious gift of sight may be restored to her.'") and more Gamesmanship, to be employed for Christmas, by Women, etc.

Potter kept going. In 1952 came One-upmanship ("Being Some Account of the Activities and Teaching of the Lifemanship Correspondence College of One-upness and Gameslifemastery"). The Lifemanship Trust has become a full-fledged, or at least partially-fledged, college. We are given a tour of the facility. Reference is made to "our students." We have evolved - if that's the word - from winning games, to winning in certain situations in "life," to a frank announcement of a modus vivendi and summum bonum: to be one-up as much as possible, in all things, lest one be one-down. The topics in One-Upmanship are bracingly varied: Doctorship includes a description of the "natural One-Upness of doctors" and a review of the four types of physicians, including the one who "achieves eminence by always replying to the simplest possible question (after the smallest conceivable pause), 'Alas, we don't know.'"

Not that patients are without their own gallery of ploys with which to become one-up on their own doctors. Take, for example, Marvelous Little Manship, which Potter especially recommends for well-dressed women patients visiting Harley Street physicians, but which surely can be adapted to today's HMO docs and the specialists to whom they refer us:

LIFEWOMAN: I was wondering whether that marvelous little man in Curzon Street would be able to help me, Doctor.

HARLEYMAN: Oh, yes? What little man?

LIFEWOMAN: Olaf Pepacenek. How do you pronounce it?

HARLEYMAN: I'm afraid I've never heard of him.

LIFEWOMAN: Oh, but he's the most marvelous man-he weighs everything...

Note Lifewoman's peremptory move toward one-upness in the briskly italicized "How" in her second line.

There are chapters on how to be one-up when buying - or selling! - insurance, and the broadcasting of your one-upness to the general public in art galleries and museums is not ignored. One should "be friendly with the attendants. At any rate address them by some name such as 'Kemp,' and say, 'Good morning, Kemp. Is Mr. Laver in today?'" Meanwhile,

to suggest that you have the artistically awakened eye and can form your own opinion...pause a long time before some object which has nothing to do with the exhibits-say a fire extinguisher or a grating in the floor through which warmed-up museum air rises-and say, "The influence of William Morris, even here," or just, "Now that, to me, is a beautiful object."

Carmanship, game bird hunting, trout fishing, and "the art of not rock climbing" — they're all here. And which of us cannot benefit from this example of "Winemanship Basic" —

With a little trouble a really impressive effect, suitable for average city-man guest, can be made by arriving [at a restaurant] fifteen minutes early, choosing some cheap ordinaire, and getting waiter to warm and decant it. When guest comes, say, "I know you'll like this. Should be all right. I got them to get it going at nine o'clock this morning. Not expensive but a perfectly honest wine-and a good wine if it's allowed to breathe for three or four hours." 

In addition to the autobiography, Potter went on to publish five more books during the Fifties, including Sense of Humour (1954), a sometimes amusing, sometimes tedious study of "British humour": Chaucer, Boswell, Blake (?), Dickens, Beerbohm, Angus Wilson, Ted Kavanagh, Hugh Kingsmill, and Hesketh Pearson. Who? Never mind. In 1956 came Christmas-ship, or The Art of Giving and Receiving, which I have not had the pleasure of finding, let alone reading. Also in '56, Potter on America, diaries of lecture tours he undertook in Spring and Autumn of 1955. These are sweet-natured, grateful, sometimes bedazzled at a pre-Mad Men America that verges on the unrecognizable. One wants to live there oneself.

Supermanship (1958), a compilation of original material and magazine pieces, does go on, but has its moments (like this one, from the "Yeoville Jubilee Pamphlet" 'Superbaby': "Indeed, it is clear that babies are by nature one-up. Whatever they do it is your fault and your fault only. Babies cannot be, and are not supposed to be, good, reasonable, or considerate. Further, they are completely unsusceptible to the normal life-attacks.") Taking a brief break from the humor business, in 1959 Potter published The Magic Number, which is, as you would expect, a corporate history of H.J. Heinz. In 1965 came Anti-Woo ("Gambits for Non-Lovers") which, after an introductory summary of the history of Lifemanship, announces:

We have nowhere said that men and women should never marry. We believe that in certain circumstances such unions should exist between consenting adults.

But the oft-repeated dictum that "there is one woman in the world for you" (cf. "Wait for Mr. Right") implies unequivocally that there are approximately 2,105,600,000 women who are, or will when they are old enough, be wrong.

If, by 1965, London had not yet fully begun Swinging, it would do so shortly; and Cool Britannia would regard Potter's jokes and characterizations as being a bit behindhand. The Master himself would be one-down.

Nonetheless, in 1968, came Golfmanship, a long, detailed, and occasionally opaque treatment of what Potter dubbed "the gamesgame of gamesgames." Still, when the instruction shifts from the thornily technical (under "Handicap Types: The 24 man is rarely a self-deceiver. The 22 man on the other hand may be nigglingly mean and, however short with his woods, a very good putter") to the purely social, the advice once again becomes universally enlightening:

I am sometimes asked which, of all the gambits I have invented, do I personally find the most useful...

In golf I have no doubt. Described in Gamesmanship, it is for use against the man who is driving further and less erratically than yourself.

"I see how you're doing it," you say, "straight left arm at the moment of impact, isn't it? Do you mind if I stand just here and watch?"

...Now there is a well-developed counter: Driver says, "Do you mean like this?" and if drive is unsatisfactory takes out another ball and drives again as if first drive was for demonstration only. "Now let's watch your arm," he then says.

Unnerving through praise: brilliant.


Though Potter's moment in the sun had largely passed by the end of the fifties, there were occasional renaissances. In 1960 a movie was produced, School for Scoundrels, based on "the novels" of Potter (i.e., the — manship books). It's not very good, despite the droll presence of the massively large-headed Alistair Sim as "Professor Potter." Hapless Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) is bullied and outmaneuvered by car dealers, maitre d's, and a romantic rival played by cartoon Englishman Terry-Thomas. Palfrey attends the One-upmanship school, where he learns his ploys and counters. They work like a charm (of course), but on the brink of seducing young, sweet Janette Scott, he has an attack of conscience and confesses all. The movie pulls its punches and is a bit too, as Potter would say, "nicechap." (There was also, over three seasons in 1974, '76, and '78, a BBC comedy series, One-upmanship, in which, once again, an actor played the role of "Potter." Not available in stores! Or on You Tube, Amazon, or anywhere else, alas.)

Potter made his mark on the scientific world, as well. His observations about jockeying for social prestige and the benefits of, as it were, etiquette jiu-jitsu, are often oddly close to the work of legitimate psychologists and social scientists of the mid-twentieth century. Thus, in 1964 we got Games People Play, by Eric Berne, M.D., a massive U.S. best-seller about the interpersonal scenarios we construct (or collude in) as our inner Parent/Adult/Child makes its pathetic way through life, which handsomely acknowledges its debts: "Due credit should be given to Stephen Potter for his perceptive, humorous discussions of maneuvers, or 'ploys,' in everyday social situations..."

And then there's the sociologist Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). Goffman's colleague Tom Burns notes:

Most of us ... found Stephen Potter's ... "Gamesmanship" and "Lifemanship" articles, which appeared in Punch around 1950, positively inspirational. What Stephen Potter did was to disclose an elaborate code of conventions which operated in everyday social intercourse, which was nevertheless tacit, even secret, but which we were all aware of once it was made public... . What Potter's articles perhaps did, by their oblique but recognisable affinity with Goffman's own ideas, was to provide the kind of licence or mandate that even the boldest beginner needs.

Traditionally, as Americans, we have wanted everyone to like us. Not so, the Brits - but then, not so us, anymore, either. Life among the acquaintances is now, more than ever, a contest, a battle, a game. The relevance and utility of Stephen Potter's gambits and blocks for the present-day cocktail party, dinner party, power lunch, business conference, "creative" consultation, university department meeting, or corporate team-building retreat, are obvious.

With luck, then, these books will make a comeback. Lifemanship, Gamesmanship, and One-upmanship are all available — on Amazon, if nowhere else, but at an insane range of prices. I foresee them re-published as a trilogy called Three-upmanship, for today's hard-charging, careerist go-getter. Potter's insights are increasingly applicable to life in these barely United States.

LARB Contributor

Ellis Weiner is author or co-author of numerous books, including Yiddish With Dick and Jane and How to Profit from the Coming Rapture. His latest is a parody of Atlas Shrugged (Atlas Slugged AGAIN), which may be found here. He blogs at


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!