When we in India don’t like someone or don’t approve of something we tend to say so bluntly and upfront. The British, on the other hand, have devised the witty put down. Its magic lies in the fact that even when you’re being snubbed you can’t resist smiling.
Scanning the net recently I stumbled across a delightful collection of put downs which starts with William Shakespeare. When Orlando, in As You Like It, wanted to keep someone at arm’s distance this is what Shakespeare made him say: “I do desire we may be better strangers.”
When Winston Churchill, who was peeing in the House of Commons loo, moved a little to the other side, as Aneurin Bevan, the Labour leader, stepped in front of the adjoining pissoir, Bevan tried to reassure him: “Don’t be shy we’ve all got the same thing.” An unabashed Churchill shot back: “I know you socialists. As soon as you see something big and successful you want to nationalize it!”
Churchill, of course, was a master of the put down. He once received a letter from George Bernard Shaw which said: “I’m sending you two tickets to the first night of my new play — for you and a friend, if you have one.” This was his prompt reply: “I’m sorry I can’t make the first night but I’ll come for the second, if there is one.”
On another occasion, when somewhat tiddly, he stumbled down the steps of the House of Commons to find himself sprawled at Nancy Astor’s feet. “Winston!” she admonished him. “You’re drunk”. Rising to his feet he calmly responded: “And you’re ugly but tomorrow I’ll be sober.”
Even lesser known British politicians can excel themselves. The reason is the House of Commons rewards such repartee. Asked by the trade union leader JH Thomas how to get to the toilet — which the Americans insist on calling a wash room — FE Smith (who, as Lord Birkenhead, was secretary of state for India) replied: “First left, then go along the corridor. You’ll see a door marked ‘gentlemen’ but don’t let that deter you.”
Some of the best put downs have come from the world of theatre and literature. Of Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud said: “She speaks five languages and can’t act in any of them.” Of Arianna Stassinopoulos, who after her marriage set up Huffington Post, Alan Bennett said: “So boring, you fall asleep half-way through her name.” Of Ethel Mannin, Edith Sitwell, the famous poet and critic, said: “At the moment I’m debarred from the pleasure of putting her in her place by the fact she hasn’t got one.”
Debates at the Cambridge Union sparkle with undergraduate examples. Two of my favourites are the following descriptions of your opponents. “He’s a well-balanced man with a chip on both shoulders” and “Ours is a case of mind over matter — I don’t mind and he doesn’t matter.”
How different would be the impact Mr Kejriwal might make if he could only find a bit of wit when he wants to hit out at the prime minister. The point he should remember is that when you want to wound you mustn’t bludgeon. It’s so much more effective to prick with the end of a rapier.
The trick is to use your head whilst keeping your emotions in check. The desire to be nasty is best camouflaged with humour. Then it doesn’t offend. Instead, it attracts praise and, better still, it’s long remembered.
The views expressed are personal