EP 039: 221B BAKER STREET – Historycal: Words that Shaped the World
If you had parents and grandparents that were anything like mine, you likely had three lessons drummed into your head: never trust a man with white socks, cereal is not dinner, and if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
I’d just like to start by saying that cereal absolutely is dinner. Or lunch. Or, depending on the day, an acceptable from-the-box movie snack. I’m not saying those are the days I’ve particularly excelled at life, but they are days. Pro tip, you can actually pour the milk straight into the irritating liner packet, which has the dual effect of minimizing your dishes and maximizing your feelings of self pity.
With that housekeeping to one side, we come to the third rule. And here, I’m glad to say, we have History (and literature) onside, both of which teach us that this particular little maxim for life should really have been: if you don’t have anything nice to say, say it so well that cross people will be borrowing it for the rest of time.
We’ll start with Churchill, who always had a great gift of the gab, even when he was using it to be rude. Amongst all the other people that Churchill heartily disliked – and there were probably enough to repopulate England, should the need have arisen – there is one standout. This was Lady Astor – the first woman to sit in the House of Commons as an MP. That, of course, was a wonderful moment for women, but if you’re thinking that you don’t want to hear Churchill’s verbal bashing of a pioneering women of politics, don’t worry. She was wildly anti-Semitic, deeply racist, highly paranoid, and had some very strange sympathies with National Socialism, which as everyone knows, turned into Nazism. So we can enjoy Churchill being snide in peace.
Now Churchill quite enjoyed a tipple or two, and he did not enjoy Lady Aster. One evening, at a function, they were seated near one another at dinner. Lady Aster very astutely observed that Churchill was, as she put it, disgustingly drunk. To which he turned to her, and in – I like to believe – a very pleasant tone, said “Yes my dear. And you are ugly. But tomorrow, I will be sober, and you will still be ugly.”
Later, and perhaps remembering this jab, Lady Aster, sank to that level that your parents always warned you about. “If you were my husband” she informed him, “I would put poison in your coffee.”
To which Churchill rather cleverly replied, “Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it.”
Just in case anyone is wondering this – because I certainly was – it wasn’t just his enemies that Churchill liked to insult. He was quite good friends with one George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright of Pygmalion renown. During the course of their lengthy correspondence, Shaw invited Churchill to one of his premieres:
“Have reserved two tickets for opening night,” he wrote. “Come, and bring a friend, if you have one”
Churchill wrote back: “Impossible to come to first night. Will come to second night, if you have one.”
To keep things fair, we’ll bat one back at Winston. Stanley Baldwin served three terms as the British Prime Minister, and was considered quite a good one at the time. In later years, he was vilified for not having done enough to fix unemployment or prepare for the Second World War, and there are those who consider that he was too quick to try and appease Hitler while the latter was on his rise to power. Modern scholars tend to rank him in the top 50% of British Prime Ministers – although depending on what you think of English politics, they may not be making quite the point they think they are. Either way, he considered Churchill to be rash and hot-headed, but said it in much flouncier language:
“When Winston was born lots of fairies swooped down on his cradle with gifts–imagination, eloquence, industry, ability–and then came a fairy who said ‘No one person has a right to so many gifts,’ picked him up and gave him such a shake and twist that with all these gifts he was denied judgment and wisdom.”
Churchill isn’t the only famous politician to take, or deliver, a doozy. The hero of our very first episode – Abraham Lincoln – was once called two-faced in a debate. Now for context, even amongst his greatest admirers, Lincoln was considered incredibly strange looking. Proving that sometimes the best offence is a good defense, and that self effacing humour can be the sharpest form of wit – he kept his head and responded quite coolly “if I had two faces, do you think I would wear this one?”
Many years later, just before the Spanish American War, the USS Maine exploded quite catastrophically, under what Teddy Roosevelt, for one, considered very suspicious circumstances. A great many people considered that William McKinley, then President of the United States, should be taking a firmer hand and even declaring war on the Spanish. “Remember the Maine, To Hell with Spain” was a popular refrain at the time, just going to show that people have been tweeting in some form or another for a lot longer than we tend to think. A popular joke in the papers was “Why is McKinley’s mind like a bed”, for which – in the less bawdy publications – the answer was “because it has to be made up for him every time he needs it”. Teddy Roosevelt, not impressed by McKinley’s stoic, plodding fact-finding mission, declared to friends that the President had no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.
Back in England, and in time, John Wilkes – the British Radical, not to be confused with John Wilkes Booth – was, not uncommonly, having an argument with Edward Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, when the latter declared: “Sir I do not know whether you will die on the gallows, or of the pox”.
To which Wilkes replied, “Well, my lord, that depends on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress.”
Jibing, mudslinging, and general rudeness isn’t confined to politicians, although, frankly, they do do it best.
The Papacy, not usually known for its zingers – as least, not of the intentional variety – hit an all time Catholic comedic high, when Pope John the 23rd was asked how many people worked in the Vatican, and responded “about half”.
And then of course, we have the Bard, Shakespeare, himself, who was so good at coining an insult that it’s a wonder he had any friends. Or maybe he didn’t, and was just so famous that he gave a good imitation of it. Some of Willy Shakes’ sickest burns, in my humble opinion, have to be:
‘His brain is as dry as the remainder biscuit after voyage.’ (from As You Like It)
‘He has not so much brain as ear-wax.’ (from Troilus and Cressida)
Then there’s the slightly aggressive:
‘Her face is not worth sunburning.’ (from Henry V)
And the slightly cumbersome, but nevertheless evocative:
Thou art unfit for any place but hell. (Richard III)
And, because no list of historical insults would be complete without it, the classic:
‘Villain, I have done thy mother.’ (Titus Andronicus Act 4, Scene 2)
Intriguingly, one of Shakespeare’s most famous insults has been remembered and perpetuated completely out of context, and has been turned into a compliment. If David Mitchell’s Shakespeare in the very excellent Upstart Crow is anything to go by, the man himself probably wouldn’t mind very much. Being remembered is the thing. (The play is also the thing, but that’s for another day). The line is, of course, is “for though she be but little, she fierce” which is uttered in the midst what we can only really call a cat fight, but is more commonly used on the life-affirming bedroom posters (and sometimes inked onto the bodies) of young women.
Don’t feel too bad, I am one of them, but I’m not going to tell you which.