Grist to the Mill

13 March, 2004


Once upon a time, many years ago, an ice-cream van drove to the top of our suburban Yorkshire cul-de-sac, announcing itself with the familiar tinny tune (I can still hum it but I’ve no idea where it's from). Dithering about how much I wanted a lolly or (more likely) trying to persuade my parents to give me some money, I missed my chance. By the time I got outside, the van was turning the corner at the bottom of the street. When I came back into the house, defeated, my grandmother announced portentously to everyone present: "He who hesitates is lost". Her voice wasn’t shrill but she was serious. She was fond of that line. She always applied these maxims to the most ordinary circumstances.

Another one she liked was "A rolling stone gathers no moss", sometimes addressed to the TV when ‘Crossroads’ and the like were showing. Clearly, the meaning depends on whether moss is taken to be good or bad. I assumed the gist was: "Keep moving; continue looking forward and you’ll avoid parasitic 'bad stuff'. This was always my understanding, which I accepted unthinkingly... until recently, when I wondered if moss could be considered desirable in the context. Moss is velvety and colourful after all, and could cushion a stone. This would subvert the meaning, turning it on its head to mean: "Don't keep moving around. Stay settled in one place to accumulate some 'good stuff' (rootedness, community, friends, etc)".

Guesswork tells me the former interpretation applies but I'm not certain. More significant than the aphorism is the peculiarity of blithely accepting something as 'correct' for decades without ever thinking about it or checking. This can happen with the meanings of words. Fresh eyes and/or lateral thinking can shed new light on things you thought were understood. Also, I wonder if Mick and Keef have ever thought about this and if even they know for sure?? It’s hard to believe they’d name the band with a nod to a proverb in praise of stability.

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