Sweeping Theseus’s ship with Trigger’s broom

You don’t expect to find that a classic joke in a classic British sitcom has been supplied by a guy who lived 2,000 years ago. I’ve always thought that the ‘Trigger’s Broom’ sketch in Only Fools and Horses was an original zinger from the show’s writer, John Sullivan. Turns out it was already a legend when Plutarch wrote about it, not as a clever joke, but as a thought experiment involving a paradox.

First things first though, here’s Trigger’s version (for anyone who doesn’t know who Trigger is, he’s someone who would misspell ‘IQ’):

Trigger shows off his 20-year-old broom to 'Dave'

Trigger shows his 20-year-old broom to ‘Dave’

Trigger: “I’ve maintained it for 20 years.  This old broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time.”

Sid: “How the hell can it be the same bloody broom then?”

Trigger:  “Well here’s a picture of it.  What more proof do you need?”

So, is it the same broom? A similar question has vexed the greatest minds in history, from Plutarch to Locke, and in literature, from Jules Verne to Frank L Baum. The original concerns the legend of Theseus’s ship. Each time one of its planks rotted, it was replaced, until such time that every piece of timber was replaced several times over. Was it the same ship?

I’ve discovered another such paradox, deep in the rewriting of my first novel.

At this stage, I’ve combed through the text at least 30 times. I’ve moved lines, changed words and phrases, added descriptions, deleted superfluous material, sown seeds in chapter 2 and reaped crops in chapter 9, I’ve tidied up, smoothed out and decluttered. I’m on track to end up with a final draft that I will be happy with. But, the question is: Is it the same book I started with?

The novel looks nothing like it did after I had finished the first draft. Not only have I replaced all of the timber on the good ship Mrs God, but I’ve upgraded the planks, got longer and stronger ones; better wood, better furnishings, better crew, too! It started out as a barely lashed together raft, and now it’s a sea-worthy ship awaiting its launch.

As for whether I’m the same person now as the guy who wrote the first line of the first draft… I’ll side with Trigger on that!


UPDATE: Roger Lloyd Pack, the immensely talented actor who played Trigger, died today (Jan 16, 2014) aged 69. His memorable TV and film work shall live on…

One comment

  1. […] Wear-and-tear happens though, and sometimes repairs are necessary. In much the same way that Trigger had a Broom, we have garden forks and spades. Time for a new […]

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