Ian McMillan: The life-affirming effect of those who enthuse

I’m getting a taxi to the station and I’m wondering which driver I’ll get: will it be the one who likes to talk about football, who seems to have seen just about every game played in the country over the weekend and who, like me, has opinions on them all? Will it be the one who loves to go off for weekend breaks and who likes to tell me about which hotel he stayed in and what he had for his evening meals? Will it be the one who says, “Put this in your bit in the paper,” and then proceeds to tell me stories which may well, one day, end up in these pages?

The taxi rolls up. Ah, it’s none of the above. It’s The Ex-Butcher, so we’ll spend the next 20 minutes talking about his trade. I clamber into the front seat. After a few pleasantries he starts in on the meat (ho ho) of his argument: there aren’t many good butchers about anymore. We talk about shoulder and loin. We talk about offal and skirt. We talk about the making of a great pie, and we try to remember the technical name for that wooden thing you mould the pie crust around. In no time at all we’re at the station and the time has passed very pleasantly indeed.

And that’s because I’ve been in the company of an enthusiast. I love enthusiasts because they’re, well, enthusiastic. In the end I don’t really mind if their enthusiasms don’t chime with mine. As it happens I like football, weekend breaks and pies, but the drivers could just as easily be talking about coarse fishing, raising show tortoises or the history 
of powered flight; enthusiasm 
is life-affirming and it makes 
the world a better place. Enthusiasm’s languages and rhythms make you feel more glowingly about your fellow humans.

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When I worked in local radio my producer would say “Get me an enthusiast!” when we needed a guest because he knew they would be communicative and full of quirky facts; he also knew that they would be supremely articulate as they tried to convince you about the thing that was at the centre of their lives and how it should be the centre of yours.

It almost failed just once when we got somebody in from the Tabby Cat Society. She was the perfect guest: she had notes but didn’t rattle them, she had anecdotes that didn’t go on too long, she could give you potted histories that really were potted. At the end of the chat I put a record on and said, “Thanks, that was great!” She handed me a sheaf of Tabby Cat Society leaflets and asked when the interview would be going out. “It’s just gone out,” I said, “It was live.”

She went pale. She slumped across the desk, her leaflets fluttering to the floor. She’d thought it was recorded. And that’s when I glimpsed the 
essential fragility of the enthusiast: you’re only as good as your last breathless fact-packed evocation of 
your subject, and if there’s the possibility you got a few things wrong, then your crown of enthusiasm will slip and fall to the floor like tabby cat leaflets. Still, that shouldn’t put them off. Carry on enthusing, enthusiasts, and I’ll keep listening!