Robert Gordon’s new book on productivity in the U.S. economy, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” is masterful, but reminds me of the character in Evelyn Waugh’s comic novel “Scoop,” who sings, “change and decay in all around I see” while looking in the mirror to shave.
The character is William Boot’s Uncle Theodore, who frequently sings this line from the hymn Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide. He sang “with startling loudness” as he gazed out the morning-room window at Boot Magna. As Waugh described the scene:
Decay, rather than change, was characteristic of the immediate prospect…It was his habit to sing the same line over and over [as he awaited] the morning papers. (Scoop, pp. 18, 23)
The decay he witnessed was in the surroundings of Boot Magna rather than his own face in the mirror. Although as the oldest member of the household, his face would probably have reflected change and decay as well.