I guess we live in a four-letter age. When we wish to retort or rebuke we tend to swear and curse. If we’re English speaking the F-word trips off our tongues with frightening fluency. The rest, I suspect, are prisoners of Punjabi invective. In either case, the crude, even the lewd, dominates our response. Sadly, we’ve bid goodbye to the use of wit and repartee.
How different was the world of Winston Churchill and Lady Astor. They seem to have been habitual sparring partners. Almost a century later, their stories are still delightful.
Once, when a tipsy Winston Churchill stumbled down the stairs of the House of Commons, he fell in front of a disapproving Lady Astor. “Winston”, she reprimanded, “you’re drunk”. “And you’re ugly”, he shot back. Then, rising to his feet, he added: “But tomorrow I’ll be sober.”
At a dinner where Lady Astor was pouring coffee, she handed a cup to Winston Churchill with the words “If you were my husband, I’d poison your coffee”. Accepting, he replied “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
But it wasn’t just Winston Churchill and Lady Astor who used their wit to keep the other in his or her place. Gladstone and Disraeli did the same in the 19th century. Gladstone, who was more proper and less flamboyant, was frequently at odds with Disraeli. “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.” “That depends, Sir”, Disraeli responded with a flourish, “on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”
I suspect Disraeli usually got the better of their exchanges but Gladstone’s description of him has achieved a certain rhetorical immortality. He called him “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity”.
The truth is that the English — and those who enjoy imitating them — delight in witty ways of putting the rapier in. They don’t bludgeon but they delicately carve and slice. Consider the following put-downs. They make their point with great effect yet its difficult to be offended by them.
He has all the virtues I dislike but none of the vices I admire” (Churchill); “He has no enemies but is intensely disliked by his friends” (Wilde); “He had delusions of adequacy” (Walter Kerr); “A modest little person with much to be modest about” (Churchill); “Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go” (Wilde); “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts … for support rather than illumination” (Andrew Lang); “Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without an address on it?” (Mark Twain); “He’s not only dull, he’s the cause of dullness in others” (Samuel Johnson) and “In order to avoid being called a flirt she always yields easily” (Talleyrand).
It’s not just authors or politicians who have a way with words. Occasionally even Hollywood celebrities can be remarkably witty. Robert Redford once said of a fellow actor: “He has the attention span of a lightening bolt.” And Mae West of a suitor who was less than ardent: “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” My favourite, however, is Billy Wilder on an unkind music critic: “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.”
In my time the Cambridge Union would applaud repartee far more than weighty and serious argument. The better debators always had a quiver full. The arrows were aimed at their opponents. A regular used to be: “He’s a well-balanced man with a chip on both shoulders”. Another was this comparison: “The difference between Mr. X and me is a question of mind over matter. I don’t mind and he doesn’t matter.” But the one that brought the House down was the Liberal Leader Jeremy Thorpe’s attack on Reginald Maudling, at the time a Conservative minister: “They say when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Well, I suppose that explains why Reggie Maudling is sitting put in his chair”.
I’ll always be a sucker for the deceptive charms of the good Reverend Spooner. Borrowing from his repertoire, I was once called “a shining wit”. I beamed only to discover the quotation meant something very different.