The old jokes are not the best jokes
THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF HUMOROUS QUOTATIONS • edited by Ned Sherrin OUP, £15.99, pp. 543 For 12 years I lived above Foyle's bookshop, in a block of flats owned by Miss Christina Foyle. The lobby had a founda- tion stone engraved, `Laid by the Poet Lau- • reate' (Masefield, actually). 'Every nice girl's ambition', John Betjeman comment- ed.
Miss Foyle lived on the penthouse floor above me with her husband Mr Batty. She was an amiable and tolerant landlady. On the floor below lived Danny la Rue. It is quite untrue that they sometimes swapped evening dresses. One time I shared the lift with Danny and he told me a story which could have found a place in this book. That morning a girl with pink and green hair had accosted him in Shaftesbury Avenue and asked, skittishly, 'Don't you wish you looked like me, Danny?' He replied: 'I did look like you, darling — 30 years ago when I played one of the Ugly Sisters at Margate.'
Miss Foyle would sometimes invite me to a luncheon or dinner party, usually at the Dorchester. One of these parties was to launch a little anthology she had made. The guest speaker was her friend Ned Sherrin. He was very droll: good jokes of his own concoction, each given extra top- spin by arch, sidelong looks, Noel-Coward timing and a killer-bee sibilance in delivery. Ever since, the name Sherrin on a dinner menu has been almost as welcome as Puligny Montrachet. I would have put money on him to mastermind a whizzbang dictionary of humorous quotations. Well, I wouldn't have lost my shirt; but neither would I have loined me pockets', as I once heard an Irish punter boast he had done at Loopardstown race course.
What quickly causes the heart to sink is an early page headed 'Project Team', list- ing, among others, 'Editor: Ned Sherrin', ,Quotation Retrieval: Katie Weale' and Data Capture: Sandra Vaughan'. At first I thought this might be an amusing put-on, like a spoof index, rather than some ghastly imericanised publishing hierarchy. I mean, ,Quotation Retrieval' makes one think of My baby has gorn down the plug'ole', and the idea of humorous data capture suggests a Salinger sequel, The Catcher in the Corn. But now I am not so sure, as this book is exactly the sort of camel that a committee designing a horse might produce. CA camel is a horse designed by a committee' — Alec Issignole, 1906-88, attrib. The book has that One; also the Duke of Devonshire's capital mot on Nasser and Anthony Eden, 'the camel that broke the straw's back'; but it lacks the nice Spoonerism about the camel going through the knee of an idol.) As Winston Churchill said of an MP called Bossom — the quotation is not in this book — the dictionary is 'neither one thing nor the other'. (Churchill spoke truer than he knew — when Sir Alfred Bossom was not being an MP, he was a half-way decent art-deco architect.) I think Oxford would have been best advised to aim for a dictionary of 20th-century (Modern/ Contemporary) humorous quotations rather than lumber the kite with a heavy streamer of tags and gags going back to the year dot — all the Sydney Smiths and Wildes we have heard a thousand times, gobbets from Shakespeare, Tacitus on power, Plautus on poverty. The bee's knees in 184 BC, Plautus doesn't detonate too many belly-laughs today. We are rich in living humorists — Alan Bennett, Jeffrey Bernard, Craig 'Brown, Jilly Cooper, Alan Coren, Stephen Fry, Philip Howard, Barry Humphries, Clive James, Kathy Lette, Bernard Levin, Victor Lewis-Smith, Hilary Mantel, John Mortimer, Matthew Parris, Jaci Stephen, Mark Steyn, Tom Stoppard, Taki, Charles Thomson, Gore Vidal, John 'I just feel so dreadfully put out.' Walsh, Auberon Waugh and A. N. Wilson — to name just a lot.
To go all modern was one option; the other was to compile a dictionary of every age and clime, so that when the Lady Mayoress grubbed through it for an apt witticism to decorate her jumble-sale-open- ing speech, she would not feel short- changed. And this is what Sherrin has attempted; but, from laziness in looking, or perversity in choosing, the result is weirdly imbalanced. There are 65 quotations from Shakespeare and 25 from Pope, but 29 from Bill Bryson (1951- ) and 91, for God sakes, from P. J. p'Rourke (1947- ), only eight lewd' than George Bernard Shaw, who emerges from this anthology as the most consistent prince of wit. Bryson is mildly unfunny. O'Rourke raises unfunni- ness to an art form. I find him about as amusing as having Lord Sebastian Flyte be sick through my window. O'Rourke's is the style of the not very smart alec. Sample (and I mean sample):
Giannini and I were adhering to the two key rules of Third World travel: 1. Never run out of whiskey.
2. Never run out of whiskey.
(En passant, in the middle of not laughing, I wonder: why so exercised about a short- age of Irish whiskey? Is this a subliminal ad for Jameson's?) Sherrin is very good on theatrical anec- dotes: he ought to be, he has made anthologies of them before. His friend Coral Browne earns every centimetre of her space. But he flounders when it comes to novels and poetry. There are several quotations from Kingsley Amis, and quite right too; but it is flabbergasting that there are none at all from Martin Amis. (Did his agent demand £50,000 per quote?) Nothing from Hilary Mantel, who should certainly have contributed to the Religion section, along with John Walsh's reminiscences of his Roman Catholic upbringing; no Kathy Lette, no William Boyd, no Paul Micou. The Music and Musicians section would have benefited from this stab from Micou's The Death of David Debrizzi:
The 'Appassionata' is a piece I detest, the first movement, which has always sound- ed to me like a random, improvised accom- paniment to a particularly melodramatic silent film, with nauseating glimpses of 'The Star Spangled Banner' thrown in.
Sherrin was the Diaghilev of the 1960s satire movement; but you get the feeling he has not kept up, for all his quotation retrievers (best of breed) and data captur- ers.
Again, this is not billed as a dictionary of British humorous quotations; and the inclu- sion of Proust suggests at least a nod toward internationalism. But then where is Kaflca (I would have wanted a couple of observations from his Amerika), where is Karl Kraus, where above all is Milan Kundera, wittiest of all modern novelists? The author index under 'IC' gives us none of these three, only Joseph Wood ICrutch (1893-1970), whose name can have left him little option but to be a humorist. As Alfred Brendel wrote when choosing The Unbearable Lightness of Being as his book of the year in 1984, Kundera is specially piquant on Kitsch — a subject-heading which finds no place in the Sherrin pot- pourri. (If it did, it would be, appropriately, between Journalism and Literature.) Even on the older stuff, the retrievers and capturers do not score top marks. Some reject jokes cry out from the salon des refuses to be admitted. The Music and Musicians section lacks Samuel Butler's immortal comment on Mendelssohn's 'Songs without Words' — 'Thank God!' If the nets had been cast wider, they might have hauled in these exquisitely subtle lines of A. J. P. Taylor (Observer, 17 February 1963) for an 'Ambition' section (except that, inexplicably, the book doesn't have an Ambition section. No ambition, that's the trouble with the young nowadays) : Lord Rosebery had ambition of an unusual kind. His lifelong dream was that, without effort or preparation, he should be offered the post of Prime Minister, and that he should then gracefully refuse. He nearly attained this ambition.
Too often, the quotation Sherrin has picked brings to mind one that is more pointed, crystalline, funny. 'Gentlemen do not take soup at luncheon' (Lord Curzon). I prefer the interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe's, 'No great meal was ever built on a lake'. 'Dear me, I never knew that the lower classes had such white skins' (Curzon again). More risible is a gauche remark of Mrs Disraeli, recorded by Sir William Gregory (husband of Yeats's patron) in his memoirs:
When the conversation turned on some man's fine complexion, `Ah,' said she, 'I wish you could only see my Dizzy in his bath, then you would know what a white skin is.'
'Holland . . . lies so low they're only saved by being dammed' (Thomas Hood) — an ingenious double-pun, but it hits the funny bone less square-on than a letter from an enraged newspaper reader to the cartoonist Low : 'You're so Low, you'll go to hell in a balloon.' I'd as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down' (Robert Frost). Nice one, Robert, but perhaps bet- tered by G. K. Chesterton on free verse: 'You might as well call sleeping in a ditch "free architecture" '.
Sherrin includes two classic newspaper headlines — 'Sticks nix hick pix' (front- page headline on the lack of enthusiasm for farm dramas among rural populations) and 'King's Moll Reno'd in Wolsey's Home Town' (American newspaper headline on Wallis Simpson's divorce proceedings in Ipswich). But, perhaps to spare the Lady Mayoress's blushes, he does not have 'Nut Screws Washers and Bolts', the world- beater preserved for us by Claud Cock- burn. On Mrs Simpson, Sherrin also lacks the reply of the taxi-driver when she got in his cab and said 'King's Cross, driver.' 'Very sorry to 'ear it, madam.'
I have read this book in a way few other readers will — from cover to cover, joke by perishing joke. One thing that this exercise teaches, is how often humour is recycled. There is a kind of joke contagion — 'It's me jest infection again, doctor'. I had always counted among P. G. Wodehouse's pithiest lines, 'Lord Emsworth made the short journey to the end of his wits.' But under Foolishness and Ignorance, Sherrin gives a Lord Byron letter of 1820: 'The Cardinal [at Ravenna] is at his wit's end — it is true that he had not far to go.' Plagia- rism, or great minds thinking alike? Sherrin has Paul Keating (1944- ) saying of John Hewson, the Australian Liberal leader, 'He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up.' But, as I recorded in Oxford Today magazine in 1989, a similar joke split the sides of the Oxford Union in 1961: 'The other day a shiver ran along the Govern- ment benches looking for a spine to run up.' Perhaps Mr Keating reads Oxford Today.
Ned Sherrin is not above quoting his own witticisms in the dictionary; so when he credits Denis Healey with applying to John Major Tacitus's words on Galba, Omnium consensu, capax imperil, nisi imperasset' the opinion of all he was worthy to rule — had he not ruled'), perhaps I may say that I applied the same tag to Jo Grimond (then leader of the Liberal party) in a Punch competition published 2 January 1963. Many quotations from that magazine in the dictionary remind us that it was actually funny until the post-Coren years when it began suffering from the DTs (David Tay- lor and David Thomas, its sunset editors).
I notice that Ned Sherrin (and perhaps he is right) is not over-fond of puns. Who was it who said of Jane Fonda's anti- Vietnam war activities, 'She only does it to Hanoi because she knows it teases'? Or of the biographer Evan Charteris, 'Heaven lies about us in our infancy; and Evan lies about us in our old age'? I think it was Nicholas Orme, now Professor of History at Exeter University, who dreamed up the exam question, 'Assess Pitt's contribution to 18th-century sanitation.' (A cess-pit's — geddit?) A few puns do creep into Sherrin's dictionary. I liked Henry ICretzmer review- ing the mini-series Shogun, which ended with everybody except Richard Chamber- lain being killed in the city of Osaka. 'Moral: Never give Osaka an even break.' But Sherrin gives a miss to Joan Crawford's swipe at Anna May Wong, 'With Anna Mays like that, who needs friends?'
There are fashions in humour, just as in dress and hairstyles. I have recently been re-reading the autobiography of Harry Williams. As he is an Anglican monk and the author of Jesus and the Resurrection, The True Wilderness and Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, he might not be one's first choice as an arbiter of humour. But he was a great friend of John Betjeman and is himself a wit. He writes: At one stage I thought that Three Men in a Boat was the funniest book conceivable. I remember reading a bit of it out loud after lunch one day while we were still at table — the scene in which Harris at an evening reception . . . muddles up the Judge's song from Trial by Jury with the First Lord's song from Pinafore. My father shook all over with laughter and my mother was very amused. Fashions in humour are the strangest of all to account for. The book now seems to me fee- ble in the extreme. But then so do Pickwick Papers (I never took to them) and people used to laugh themselves silly over them when they first appeared.
Fashions in art change, too, but nothing is likely to depose Michelangelo and Leonardo as great masters. Similarly, I'd like to feel that there is an irreducible core of great humorists who will always cause people, in Alan Coren's phrase, 'to writhe on the Axminster'. For me these include Dickens (leave aside Pickwick if you must), P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. To be fair to Ned Sherrin and his team, they do give us well-chosen helpings of all these. The other thing about humour is, that though fashions change, the best jokes are still relevant centuries on. Two examples from the dictionary. Sir Thomas Elyot on football hooliganism, 1531:
Football, wherein is nothing but beastly fury, and extreme violence, whereof proceedeth hurt, and consequently rancour and malice do remain with them that be wounded.
And W. S. Gilbert on the City in 1882: The shares are a penny, and ever so many are taken by Rothschild and Baring, And just as a few are allotted to you,
you awake with a shudder despairing.