28 DECEMBER 2002, Page 26

The wets, the drys and those who are ready for all weathers


Iam grateful to those anonymous benefactors who give us new, useful words. 'Bonk', for instance — accurate and unambiguous but somehow inoffensive, unlike that other fourletter word. I like 'wet' too (its opposite, 'thy', is an afterthought and less satisfying and resonant). Contrary to what most people think, 'wet' is not Etonian slang — from 'wet bobs' and 'dry bobs' — but surfaced as a political term of abuse via White's Club in the age of Randolph Churchill, and was then popularised by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It has, however, a public-school twang about it, and probably goes back to Arnold's Rugby, deep in the 19th century. A schoolboy alternative is 'drip'. The OED's earliest citation is 1916, from `Taffrair, pseudonym for Captain H. Taprell Dorling (1883-1968). who had a long, adventurous naval career culminating in a key staff job under that exceedingly dry admiral, Andrew Cunningham. In his bestseller, Pincher Martin. he has an old salt say, 'I'll give you a clip 'longside the ear'ole if you're ain't careful. Don't act so wet.' There is a famous definition of 'wet' by GBS in Candida.

I find 'wet' useful for argumentative rhetoric, i.e., when the object is not to persuade but to punish an opponent. Thus, lunching at George Weidenfeld's one day, I found a military man called Lord Carver voicing feeble views on the Middle East. So I said. 'Well, if that doesn't beat all: a wet field marshal.' But worse was to come. At a party on the eve of the last countryside march, the Duke of Devonshire, being unable to attend and speak, deputed his wife to quote him as follows: 'It's a rum old world. It's legal for a man to bugger a boy of 16, but he can't hunt a fox.' That seemed to me to sum up pretty well what is wrong with our country' today. But she refused to include it in her speech. So I reproached her, 'You are a contradiction in terms — a wet duchess.' She replied, not unreasonably. I must admit, 'I'd rather be called a wet duchess than say that word in public.' (And it must be conceded that none of the Mitford ladies, whatever their faults, could fairly be described as wet.) It is a curious fact that the truly saturated wets do not object to being so described. It is superfluous, a tautology, to call Ian Gilmour or Tarzan wet; but, if one did, they would take it as a compliment, an acknowledgment of their sagacity. The person who hates being called a wet is one who is habitually dry. Once, when Mrs Thatcher was prime minister, I told her she was being wet about the BBC in not abolishing the licence fee; and she was livid. It is

important to grasp that wet and dry do not necessarily describe opinions or actions on particular issues; they denote states of mind, the roots of character. Moreover, a wet youth often matures into a dry middle-age. I would call myself dry as a bone, but [opposed Anthony Eden's Suez adventure of 1956 which, in retrospect. I admit was a wet thing to do. (Though, oddly enough, Eden was by nature wet, as Randolph often pointed out.) One characteristic of wetness is deviousness. The OED quotes old Whitelaw saying in the early 1980s, 'I don't really know what wet means.' That is a giveaway, for anyone who pretends not to know is by definition a closet wet, as indeed was Willie.

Wet and dry are not necessarily anchored in Left and Right. Thus, the only Ulster secretary who was not wet was Labour's Roy Mason. The last word you could use against Aneurin Bevan was wet. Ernie Bevin was dry. too. Cripps was wet and so was Mountbatten, for one infallible sign of wetness was admiration for Nehru, or, more recently, for Julius Nyerere; by contrast, admiration for Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is the hallmark of the dry. But the dry may admire the wet: it's odd, for example, that Conrad Black, who is dry. admires FDR, an archetypal wet. But then he also admires Bonaparte, whom I suppose I must describe as dry, though I can't stand the fellow. The Queen admires the wet Stuarts more than the dry Tudors. but this does not imply that she is wet (though she is). These things do not necessarily run in families, Both Pitts, elder and younger, were dry; but Charles James Fox, quintessentially wet, had a dry father. If FDR was wet, Theodore was dry. Sir Robert Walpole was dry; his son Horace so wet that he submerged. John Adams was dry. But his son John Quincy Adams was moist, and all the later Adamses were sopping (soppy, too). Morals do not always come into it. Kerensky, a good man, was hopelessly wet. (I once asked him. Why didn't you have Lenin shot?' and he replied, 'I didn't think he was important') Lenin, thoroughly evil, was dangerously dry.

Indeed, wetness and dryness transcend the ideological polarities. In the 15th and 16th centuries. the College de Mont Aigu at the Sorbonne was the epitome of theological rigour and bad sanitation, being known as 'the cleft between the buttocks of Mother Church'. Alumni who loathed it, like the reformer Erasmus and the libertine Rabelais, were wet. Those who admired it, such as Calvin, the archpuritan, and Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, were dry. Cardinal Newman, I think, must be classified as wet, and Cardinal Manning dry — but Newman could not possibly have become the wet idol of the London dockers, as Manning did. The present Pope is dry, thanks be to God, but he is wet on capital punishment.

The dichotomy is one key to literature. Thus Byron was wet, Chateaubriand dry. Shelley lived and died wet, whereas Wordsworth was a wet who lived to become exceedingly dry. Keats was wet, though in an appealing way, and Coleridge was a wet man with a dry mind. Most people would call Dickens wet, though a contrary case could be made. Trollope was certainly dry. I would designate Charlotte Bronte wet and Emily dry; then again, some would reverse the positions. Of the essayists. Iamb was wet (nice wet, though, like the gin he quaffed) and Hazlitt dry, though capable of behaving in the soppiest manner, as with his landlady's dreadful daughter. Longfellow and Emerson were a choice couple of wets, and represent a distinct wet streak that goes through American writing, infecting even naturally dry writers like Norman Mailer and Edmund Wilson. On the other hand, Mark Twain was dry: Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece of fruitful desiccation. Henry James was wet but in a dry way, like manzanilla. Hemingway was dry but with a soggy centre. All the Bloomsberries were wet, led by that clammy, damp-raincoat man, E.M. Forster. Greene was wet, Waugh dry. Kingsley Amis was a thy old boy, son Martin wet, along with all that gang. Good old Germaine, once wet, is well on the way to becoming a dry dame.

Being dry is to be decisive, not ashamed to lash out, to make clear distinctions between good and evil, growth and decadence, the beautiful and mere fashion; to lead from the front not from the rear, to enthuse, radiate confidence, seek honour and glory, to fear not death, still less being in a minority of one. To be wet is to be cautious, qualifying, putting prudence before risks and safety before victory; to quibble, to exercise patience, to postpone, to talk down, belittle the active and praise the passive; to be chilly, discouraging, nit-picking and faint-praising. A dry you are pleased to meet, though you shake him off as a bore before long. A wet you avoid.

Blessed are those who are dry at heart but who keep their brains refreshed with the waters of realism: a Queen Elizabeth I and her incomparable bard Shakespeare, a Dr Johnson, a Disraeli, the Kipling of 'Recessional' and 'Mandalay', a Winston Churchill. My plea to the maker of all is: give us another, soon.