In the 1960s I lived in Hampstead, though all these years I have managed not to write a novel about Hampstead dinner-parties. The area was, and still is, rich in second-hand bookshops. There was one bookseller, long since dead, whose shop I used to visit, not to buy books, but to listen to his talk. Let us call him Turner Paige. He never stopped talking to his customers, in an interminable, E. L. Wisty-like drone, and every sentence was a priceless platitude. I used to stand in front of the shelves, pretending to browse, but inwardly gurgling with laughter as one clunking truism followed another. This was the sort of thing:
Charles Dickens was a great comic writer. When he wanted to, he hit the funny-bone every time. But he was a great tragic writer, too: no one caught better the ‘still, sad music of humanity’.
Of the little stocking-filler books this year, one of the funniest is Corgi and Bess: More Wit and Wisdom from the House of Windsor edited by Thomas Blaikie (Fourth Estate, £9.99) — funny precisely because, as with Mr Paige’s anecdotes, most of the quotations selected are breathtakingly banal. They have absolutely no punchlines: shaggy corgi stories.
An earlier book by Blaikie, to which this is a sequel, was You Look Awfully Like the Queen: Wit and Wisdom from the House of Windsor. It received some warm reviews (‘We are amused’, Daily Mail). I can only suppose that Blaikie used up most of the good stories in it, because with few exceptions those in the new book are gems of vapidity. When I laughed at them, I was laughing at the notion that anyone could think they would make anyone else laugh. Three examples, to see if you agree with me:
When, in the 1950s, Lady Pamela Berry came to inspect the arrangements for a fashion show to be attended by the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, she said, ‘What are these chairs?’ referring to two throne-like items which had been provided for the Royal persons. ‘They won’t do at all.’ The organisers were put out. Lady Pamela Berry got the cleaning lady to sit in one of them. ‘You see. Where are they to put their handbags? They can’t go on the floor.’ More capacious chairs with room to stow a handbag had to be found at once.
End of story.
At the end of a sitting the artist Terence Cuneo asked the Queen to sign a print of his painting of the Coronation. Oh woe! His pen wouldn’t work. ‘I think I’d better fetch mine,’ said the Queen. Twenty minutes later, having been to the other end of the Palace, she returned.
End of story.
Royal bathrooms always feature three basins. To avoid confusion, they are labelled, ‘teeth’, ‘hands’ and ‘face’.
One wonders what the bidet is labelled.
Some of the anecdotes are hard to credit. Did Princess Elizabeth really knock off a policeman’s helmet on VE Day? Did the Queen Mother really attend a fancy dress party as Stalin? This story, too, seems suspect:
The Queen Mother had an encounter with a mynah bird at the Sandringham Flower Show one year. The bird inquired, ‘Can your mother skin a rabbit?’ ‘I’m really not sure,’ was the reply. ‘Well, clear off then!’
To be fair to Blaikie, a few of the contributions are vaguely amusing. The Queen herself has a nice line in oblique wit. To a novice gun at Sandringham who had made an unfortunate mistake: ‘We don’t shoot owls, do we?’ To her chef, who was upset that the main course of a banquet had been served none too hot: ‘People don’t come here for the food, hot or cold. They come here to eat off gold plate.’ The Queen Mother had her moments, too. ‘I don’t think they backed a winner,’ she remarked of a gloomy painting by Sickert of George V and his racing manager at the 1927 Grand National.
Blaikie gets a story about the Queen’s father wrong. This is his version:
John Piper did a dramatic series of pictures of Windsor Castle in his characteristically turbulent style, heavy and dark. ‘I see you’ve been unfortunate with the weather,’ George VI remarked.
Piper told me what really happened, and I think it’s funnier. It is true that he liked to paint buildings against a background of stormy skies. One day he was sitting at his easel in Windsor Great Park when the King came up behind him and said, ‘I’m sorry, Piper, it looks as if we’re in for a fine day.’
The only anecdote in the book to which I’d give ten out of ten is this:
An unfortunate culture clash occurred when a Geordie councillor was invited to tea at Buckingham Palace. The Queen enquired, ‘Would you like cake or meringue?’ ‘No, y’er not wrang, Your Majesty,’ the councillor replied. ‘I’ll have the cake.’
Well, nine out of ten, perhaps.
Blaikie misses the chance to include several of Prince Philip’s enjoyable gaffes (though he does have him saying, on confronting his wife in her crown on Coronation Day, ‘Where did you get that hat?’). The chance is not missed by Mark Hanks and Ben Garrett in Is It Just Me or Are All Politicians Shite? — The Dumbest Quotes in the World, from Those in Charge of It (Metro, £9.99). Most of the grisly gobbets in the book are from politicians, with George W. Bush in the lead by several furlongs; but there is a section treasonably headed ‘Royal Shite’, including these lulus from Philip. At the opening of Vancouver City Hall’s new annexe: ‘I declare this thing open — whatever it is.’ To Alfredo Stroessner, the Paraguayan dictator: ‘It’s a pleasant change to be in a country that isn’t ruled by its people.’ And to a student who had just visited Papua New Guinea: ‘You managed not to get eaten, then.’
I highly recommend Hanks’s and Garrett’s sottisier. Most of the quotations are funny. George W. Bush: ‘If the terriers and bariffs are torn down, this economy will grow.’ John Prescott: ‘It’s great to be back on terra cotta.’ Ronald Reagan: ‘As Henry VIII said to each of his three wives, “I won’t keep you long.” ’ (That would have been mildly amusing if he had got the wife-count right.) George Walden: ‘Anyone would think we were living on some island somewhere.’ Gerry Adams: ‘The IRA will stick to their guns on decommissioning.’ Al Gore: ‘A zebra does not change its spots.’ John Prescott again: ‘The green belt is a Labour policy, and we intend to build on it.’ Lord Healey: ‘I tried to shave off my eyebrows once and my trousers fell down.’ (That comes in the ‘Witty and Wise Politicians’ section.)
The novelist Rosemary Friedman has compiled A Writer’s Commonplace Book (Michael O’Mara Books, £9.99), a reflective and cerebral anthology. It is mainly about writers and the art of writing. One theme which recurs in it again and again is the need for, and joys of, solitude — which does not necessarily mean loneliness. Friedman has read widely and well and has made judicious choices. Here are a few of them, pretty much at random. John Updike: ‘Contrary to popular impression, writers, unlike pole vaulters, do not know when they have done their best.’ Isaac Bashevis Singer: ‘In all my writing I tell the story of my life … Only dilettantes try to be universal.’ Milan Kundera: ‘Great novels are always a little more intelligen
t than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their works should change profession.’ Peter de Vries: ‘I write when I am inspired and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.’ Flaubert: ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ Balzac: ‘A woman one sleeps with is a novel one does not write.’ (I thought of commenting, of a certain lady I know, that by that reckoning she must be War and Peace — but that could bring a libel action.)
I once had lunch with Sir David Attenborough at the Café Royal. I was editing a ‘Good Museum Guide’ for the Sunday Times, and he was the obvious expert to introduce the Natural History section. Of course he was great company; I remember he told me a story about two biologists who hated each other — one named a pubic louse after the other. But I have to confess that humans interest me more than animals, and after reading Matt Walker’s Moths that Drink Elephants’ Tears and Other Zoological Curiosities (Portrait, £9.99), I would not be heartbroken if certain species became endangered. The old rhyme goes, ‘I know two things about the horse/ And one of them is rather coarse.’ Just about everything Walker knows about the entire animal creation is gross, disgusting or grotesque — and often pretty funny. The Lord God may have made all things bright and beautiful, but Walker turns them over to expose their filthy underbellies. If he had been asked to devise an ad soliciting candidates for this book, it might have been, ‘Only the creepiest crawlies need apply.’
On a ‘need to know’ basis, I could have dispensed with the following items of information:
Females of many spider species, such as African golden orb web spiders (Nephila madagascariensis), have not one but two genital openings into which males deposit sperm. Not to be outdone, males of the species also have two sexual organs of their own, known as pedipalps, each of which can enter these openings. Unfortunately for the males, these pedipalps often break off while inside the female.
Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) use parcels of poo to seduce their prey and lure them closer. The owls collect up the droppings of larger mammals and then transport them back to their burrow entrance, where they arrange the faeces. The poo acts as bait for dung beetles, the owls’ main source of food.
Dracula ants (Adytomyra venatrix) suck the blood of their young.
The odd-looking starry-nosed mole (condyhru cristutu) is the fastest-eating mammal in the world, capable of wolfing down a snack of worms in just 227 milliseconds.
You’ll also be entranced to learn that ‘hagfish (Eptatretus stoutii) produce substantial amounts of slime when harassed’. Another entry begins, ‘The southern green stink bug (Nezara viridula) has a special way of finding a partner’, but I’m just not going to get into that. If the statement fills you with unbearable suspense, buy the book, which will also tell you even more than you are dying to know about the moths that drink elephants’ tears of the book’s title.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but apparently fish are more receptive. Russell Ash is a publisher (in 1975 he issued my Victorian Studio Photographs) but with Brian Lake he has compiled a mad miscellany — Fish Who Answer the Telephone and Other Bizarre Books (John Murray, £9.99). All the titles they have collected are of real books, and the jackets of many of them are illustrated to prove it. A large section could have been headed ‘Make mine a double entendre’. It includes Flashes from the Welsh Pulpit (1889), In and Out of Florence (1910), and Games You Can Play with Your Pussy (1985). My prize for the most outlandish title goes to Adam Farr’s The Fangs of Suet Pudding (1944). I defy anyone to read Ash’s and Lake’s book without scoring high frequencies on the chuckleometer.
For sport-mad friends, a good present would be Googlies, Nutmegs & Bogeys: The Origins of Peculiar Sporting Lingo by the veteran sports presenter Bob Wilson (Icon Books, £9.99). From Victoria Coren’s enjoyable television series about word origins, earlier this year, in association with the Oxford English Dictionary, I already knew about ‘nutmeg’ — a skilled move in football in which a player deliberately passes the ball through his opponent’s legs and retrieves it on the other side. Coren’s research suggested — and Wilson concurs — that the expression originated in the naughty practice (when nutmegs were very expensive) of carving bits of wood to look like nutmegs and selling them — an ingenious deception. Wilson explains several equally recondite words. The text kindles when he brings in his own experiences, for examples when describing his father’s use of a ‘mashie niblick’ club on the golf course or how he himself watched the Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita practising a ‘scorpion kick’ in the pre-match warm-up before the England v. Colombia international at Wembley in 1995. (Scorpion kick: ‘A peculiar move where a player jumps forward, places his hands on the ground and then kicks the ball away with his heels.’)
Charlie Croker’s Lost in Translation: Misadventures in English Abroad (Michael O’Mara Books, £9.99) is a very funny assemblage of foreign notices and brochures in broken English, beautifully illustrated by Louise Morgan. Seoul, South Korea: Third floor: Turkey Bath. Sign in the courtyard of a Barcelona hotel: No automobiles, Pederosts only. On a hotel television set, Belgrade: If set breaks, inform manager. Do not interfere with yourself. Las Palmas, Canary Islands: If you telephone for room service you will get the answer you deserve. Seoul: Measles not included in room charge. Acapulco, Mexico: The manager has personally passed all the water served here. Neon sign outside a restaurant in China: Smart noshery makes u slobber. Caption for a photograph of a London Routemaster bus, in a Japanese magazine: Double dicker.
Pauline Kiernan’s Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns (Quercus, £12.99) is a work of scholarship dressed up, with brilliant design, as titillation. It is as if a lady professor were to arrive on the lecture platform in a shocking pink bikini. Kiernan is a pukka scholar: a first in English and doctorate in Shakespeare at Oxford, fellowships and lectureships galore. In As You Like It, Duke Senior finds ‘sermons in stones’. Kiernan finds sex in more or less everything: her method might be called sexegesis. The section headings include ‘Pertaining to Cunnilingus’, ‘Pertaining to Dildos’, ‘Pertaining to Male Whore’ and ‘Pertaining to Wanking’. Not everybody will be convinced by all the salacities she discerns in Shakespeare’s language, but I hope she won’t misinterpret me if I say she makes a good fist of it.
The publishers Collins & Brown have reissued Good Housekeeping’s 1945 pamphlet, A War Bride’s Guide to the USA (£6.99). By the end of the second world war, over 100,000 British women had married American servicemen. A lot of what the pamphlet told them would still be helpful advice today (‘It is good American, when thanked for a real favour, to say “you’re welcome” ’), though I doubt that a modern bride would need to be warned not to be shocked if a tramp was called a ‘bum’.
Three writers have ventured int
o verse — Charlie Ottley in Cautionary Verses and Ruthless Rhymes for Modern Times (Constable, £9.99); James Landale’s Cautionary Tales: Comic Verse for the 21st Century (Canongate, £7.99); and James Murden in The Cosmic Verses: A Rhyming History of the Universe (Michael O’Mara Books, £9.99). The first two writers clearly had the same idea, of giving us a load of Bellocs. Not surprisingly, they have both dreamed up a character called James, addicted to, and rhyming with computer games; and each also has an odious little girl who jabbers ceaselessly into her mobile. Landale: ‘Gloria Bone was Apt to Drone/ All day upon her Mobile Phone …’ Ottley’s Sally is most satisfyingly blown up when she forgets to turn off her mobile near a petrol pump:
…Yes, with a deep and throaty cough
The phone was finally turned off,
As girl and forecourt, cars and all
Exploded in a blazing ball,
Reducing half the street to rubble.
The fire brigade had major trouble.
As for Sally — well, it’s said
They never did retrieve her head…
Murden’s Cosmic Verses are more ambitious: they remind me of Martyn Skinner’s majestic epic, The Return of Arthur. But, like Murden’s earlier Rhyming History of Britain, the new poem is shot through with humour, as much comic as cosmic.
At this guttering end of John Betjeman’s centenary year there is just time to mention two little books about his passion for the railways. In 1982, naming a locomotive after him, the late Sir Peter Parker said he had ‘an infinite capacity for taking trains’. Jonathan Glancey has edited a selection of Betjeman’s writings, On Trains (Methuen, £7.99), with a sparkling introduction; and Chris Green has written John Betjeman and the Railways (courtesy of Transport for London, in aid of the Parkinson Disease Society, 99p). Neither is a book for anoraks. Betjeman understood, and conveyed, the romance of the railways. Ruskin was impervious to that; but one of the extracts in Friedman’s Commonplace Book records that Proust’s favourite bedtime reading was a railway timetable. No wonder so many of his characters marry above their station.