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In My Own Write: ‘Will you lend me…?’
By JUDY MONTAGU
14/01/2014
‘I am not a bookkeeper,” my father used to intone with mock severity when borrowing a book, mindful of how notoriously bad many otherwise upright people are about returning books.
 

Someone I know lent a close relative NIS 80,000 to tide her over a difficult period. Despite repeated promises the loan remained unpaid, and resentment set in.

“It caused so much strain,” he recalled. He eventually got his money back via another source and, to his credit, the relationship with his impecunious relative returned to an even keel, but he recalls it as “a very difficult period.”

Shakespeare well knew the sad truth that friendships, and family ties, can get gummed up in the sticky soil of financial entanglement. In Hamlet, he has Polonius exhort his son Laertes: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

Since “friendly” loan requests tend to pop up without warning – and since our friendships are precious to us – an Internet site called Lifehacker and its advice on “How to lend money to a friend (without ruining the relationship)” might be a good thing to know about.

Clearly we’re not talking here about taxi fare or the price of a cinema ticket, but about more substantial amounts.

Make sure, urges the site, that a contract or I.O.U. is first drawn up; fix a repayment schedule and keep track of payments, making sure both parties have the same information as the payments are made.

This may seem too formal an arrangement between friends – but that’s just the point: If the repayment drifts off course, the intimacy and easy casualness that characterizes a friendship, rather than helping to pin down the problem, could well turn into awkwardness and a buildup of grievance. A contract, agreed on by both parties, can obviate this.

One possibility the site mentions is the option of bringing in a neutral third party who can draw up the agreement and collect the funds on the lender’s behalf.

This leaves out the possibly unpleasant task of asking for the money and acting as a collector.

One suggestion that I liked was to “consider gifting the money” – on a one-time basis – if you’re not struggling as a result of it. What a wonderful thing to do for a close friend, if you have the means.

The site doesn’t deal with lending money to one’s children, but a grandfather once told me with a rueful chuckle: “Where children are concerned, money tends to move in one direction only” – a reality that didn’t seem to cause him much discomfort.

Otherwise, says Lifehacker, it’s OK to frequently remind your friend about the money owed.

But “be polite, you don’t want to ruin the friendship by nagging.”

Finally, you should always keep in mind that you may not get your money back. “Take it as a lesson learned,” the site advises and warns, “under no circumstances should you loan any additional money until the entire amount of the initial loan is paid off, period.”

SO MUCH for monetary loans. But people are always lending each other things and, frequently, not getting them back. Sometimes they forget about them; but does that let you off the obligation to return them? I am – I swear – on the point of returning a china soup plate to the mother of a high school friend of my daughter’s who lives a 10-minute car ride away. She brought it over to our apartment in 1999, just before Shavuot, containing two pieces of cream cake that she had baked.

It’s true that I didn’t borrow the plate, but rather had it foisted upon me. Nevertheless, every time I set eyes on it I know it ought to be returned. Hopefully the family still resides at their old address and will recognize their longlost chinaware when I show up on their doorstep – 15 years late.

‘I AM not a bookkeeper,” my father used to intone with mock severity when borrowing a book, mindful of how notoriously bad many otherwise upright people are about returning books.

While most of us wouldn’t steal a book from a bookshop, because book loans are generally spontaneous and open-ended, people tend to be relaxed to the point of inaction about returning what they have borrowed. I venture to say that most people’s shelves contain at least one or two titles that do not belong to them.

Advised the French writer Anatole France: “Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folks have lent me.”

Since both lender and borrower often forget, respectively, what books they have lent and whom they have borrowed from, one simple recommendation is to write your name in any book that leaves your library, in the hope that it will help borrowers become “returners” instead of “keepers.”

This rhetorical question was sent to a booklovers’ Internet discussion group: “Sometimes I get a remark that I am being too strict about [not lending] my books. Then I ask that person if they would be comfortable if I would borrow their car, spill coffee over it, [pick up] a few scratches here and there, and return it either too late, or not at all.”

THERE’S BORROWING and then there’s stealing, which is outside the scope of this column, but I can’t resist quoting the great Igor Stravinsky, who reportedly once said, “Good composers borrow. Great composers steal.”

Added to which one might cite another celebrated composer – possibly Beethoven, I don’t exactly recall – who said, “It doesn’t matter what you steal; it’s what you do with it.”

When it comes to great music, that view is hard to dispute – and, indeed, classical music has a long and rich tradition of composers paying tribute in their work to the ideas of other composers. In the finale of his Fifth Symphony, for example, Beethoven borrowed a long chord sequence from the Italian composer Luigi Cherubini, whom he regarded as the greatest among his musical contemporaries.

SINCE I have already strayed into the realm of thievery, let me offer these lovely lines by Anon., addressed “To a living author”: “Your comedy I’ve read, my friend, / And like the half you pilfered best; / Be sure the piece you yet may mend – / Take courage, man, and steal the rest.”

LEND ME your ears, or your attention, and I’ll end by sharing this story my father told me years ago about an occasion when the innocuous word “lend” caused a rumpus, leading to a violent reaction.

His account dates back to Eastern Europe in the 1920s, when my dad was a student at the Galanta Yeshiva, near Bratislava. The yeshiva head, Rabbi Bucksbaum, used to take his summer break in the spa town of Marienbad, and that year my father was chosen to accompany him.

The rabbi was accustomed to taking his meals at a kosher restaurant in town, and, as my father told it, one lunchtime he had barely sat down and picked up his napkin when he jumped up again, highly agitated, and strode out of the establishment.

My father followed curiously and somewhat apprehensively, and this is what he saw: Across the street from the restaurant was a popular Yiddish theater, and that night they were offering a saucy production titled Lend Me Your Wife (“Borg mir deim vab”). A large poster on the theater wall advertised the show, and it was this, my father explained, that had raised the ultra-Orthodox cleric’s ire.

In full angry flood, the rabbi marched across the street, tore down the poster, ripped it up demonstratively and stamped on the pieces. Only then could he return to the restaurant and eat his lunch.

Some forms of lending were clearly way beyond the pale.

NEITHER A borrower nor a lender be? Polonius’s advice is sound, as far as it goes – but wouldn’t we ourselves be the poorer if we never helped anyone out, never mind the risk?

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