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A word of advice ... on giving advice


Dr Samuel Johnson sums it up: 

"The advice that is wanted is commonly unwelcome, and that which is not wanted is evidently impertinent”.


The wheel of time has turned, and I find myself dealing again with small children. These are my grandchildren, of whom I now have eight. They run me ragged, disturb the peace and cause me annoyance at certain times, like when they play a game that involves hiding my car keys or my spectacles, and then forgetting where they hid them ... but the joy and interest far outweighs the angst.

Moreover, I am discovering in the little ones the natural innocence of childhood and the unqualified affection of the grandparent-grandchild relationship that I once enjoyed from the opposite direction. As they grow older, I watch the process of their acquiring wisdom, or avoiding it, with increasing interest.

I also find myself giving them advice, as my grandfather Bill Chandler did with me, but realising (as no doubt Bill did), that most of it is seed falling upon stony ground. Their generation will be like its predecessors and will learn best from personal experience, especially from making mistakes and getting into trouble, and from the example of their friends. Unsolicited advice from old codgers will go in one ear and out the other.


My favourite example of parental advice comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when pompous old Polonius is farewelling his son Laertes, who is off to France to continue his studies. They are on the dock and Laertes is about to board his ship. “Aboard, aboard!” cries Polonius, “The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail.” But just at this propitious moment of departure, he draws his son aside, to pass on “a few precepts”. He then launches into what has become one of the most famous speeches in literature, many extracts from which have entered common language:

Give thy thoughts no tongue

Nor any unproportioned thought his act.

Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar:

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them unto your soul with hoops of steel.

Do not dull thy palm with entertainment of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade,

Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,

Bear't that th'opposed may beware of thee.

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;

Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgement.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy;

For the apparel oft proclaims the man.

...Neither a borrower nor a lender be;

For loan oft loses both itself and friend and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Above all - to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as night follows day

Thou canst not then be false to any man.


I was thinking of Polonius and Laertes recently, after my brother told me a good story. He had been working in the Northern Territory and while in the outback town of Katherine he visited an excellent little folk museum. There he found another classic example of parental advice, somehow similar to that of Polonius, but resonating to a very different time, place and culture. A panel in the museum told of an old Territory cattleman recalling the advice given to him by his father (who was also a ringer on a cattle station in the Territory) at the time he (the son) was about to set out in the world.

“There are only four rules for getting on in life,” the old man had told his son.

1.     “Never look at the brand on another man’s horse.

2.     Never speak to another man’s blackfellow.

3.     Never pat another man’s dog.

4.     Never act as if you are broke, even if you are”.


It is intriguing to reflect on the sort of life experiences that led to the adoption of such a philosophy, but you sense that the old fellow had good reasons for each point and would have been able to back each of them with a lively anecdote. Perhaps he had once himself glanced at the brand on another man’s horse, and the owner had taken offence, thinking that he was suspected of being a horse thief. I can see why it might be good to be cautious with strange dogs, or not to show affection to a working cattle dog. But I am too far removed from the culture of Territory cattle stations of the 1890s to understand the protocols or subtleties about “another man’s blackfellow.”

As for never acting as if you are broke, even if you are, this seems to me to be speaking about pride and self-respect and is perhaps an echo of Shakespeare’s dictum to be always true to yourself.


Stockmen in the Northern Territory: “And just remember, son, never …”


Mind you, it is one thing to give advice and another to know how to respond to it, and yet another altogether to live up to the advice you yourself have given to another person. There is another beautiful passage in Hamlet where Laertes, just before he had been addressed by his father, gives his sister Ophelia a good talking-to, warning her to beware of Hamlet’s romantic advances and advising her to keep herself chaste, and “out of the shot and danger of desire”. Ophelia listens to all this patiently and then, after assuring Laertes that she will take his lesson to heart, goes on sweetly:

But, dear brother,

Do not as some ungracious pastors do,

Show me the steep and thorny path to heaven,

Whilst, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,

And rekes not his own rede.


Laertes says farewell to his sister Ophelia, watched by old Polonius.


There is also the matter of seeking advice from another. The 18th century British statesman and man of letters Lord Chesterfield (who gave more advice to his son Phillip than you could shake a stick at) had this to say on this issue: “When a man seeks your advice, he generally wants your praise”. I feel sure that does not apply to me. For example, when I sought the advice of famous tennis professional Rob Casey on how to play a topspin forehand, I knew that no word of praise would be forthcoming when he ran his eye over my pre-advice stroke. On the contrary …

I don’t remember being submitted to any formal sessions of advice from my parents although both provided an excellent model for me in terms of their approach to life, work and other people. In retrospect, I particularly admire my father’s tolerance of organised religion, given that he was raised in a family where intense religious strictures were observed.

Nor did I ever draw any of my own children aside, sit them down and give them a Polonius-like address, although all of them needed it at one time or another. It is interesting that I now feel inclined to do so with my grandchildren. No doubt this is yet another symptom of advanced age, of which I am increasingly reminded these days. Mind you, being inclined to give the grandies a piece of wise advice on the occasion of some mini-crisis in their lives, or some teenage trauma, does not mean I actually give it. Usually if she gets the slightest whiff of such an intention on my part, the Ever-loving gives me some stern advice of her own: “Stay out of it, Roger. It’s none of your business!” Or her classic injunction, never-to-be-contested, when a mini-crisis of my own arises: “Deal with it … and move on!”


Of course, that still leaves “reking my own rede” as Ophelia put it (practicing what I preach). Well, that’s one of the last things on my mind. Bring on the primrose path of dalliance before it is too late, is what I say.

A last word

As a forester I think it might be appropriate to leave the last word on advice to a tree. This was sent to me some years ago by that admired Queenslander Dr, Gary Bacon, a poet, philosopher, fellow-forester and a friend … and clearly a man who understands the wisdom of the tree:





I started writing this story about 15 years ago, when my grandchildren were still buzzing around the house, getting under my feet, and hiding my car keys, and when the primrose path of dalliance might still have seemed (at least in theory) to hold some interest. The wheel of time has continued to revolve, the grandchildren are now young adults, and I am about to become a Great-Grandfather. I somehow doubt I will be around to give the newest family member the benefit of my imagined wisdom and outdated life experiences, but I might perhaps leave him or her a short, written testament. The essence of this could well be based on the words of Oscar Wilde: “I always pass on good advice to others” he said, “it is never of any use to me”.


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