Barbarism and decadence: In praise of the bon mot

Political discourse in America, it is fervently to be hoped, reached its nadir in Brooklyn recently when a gathering of witches solemnly cursed the newly installed justice of the Supreme Court, expressing the ugliest of sentiments in language that encompassed both the vile and the banal.

This isn’t a complaint about the fact that these folks think less than highly about the justice. They have a First Amendment right to their views. My contempt is reserved for the dreariness of the language in which they expressed their disapproval.

It calls to mind a comment by the 1st Century AD Roman poet Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis to give him his proper name) about the gladiatorial games and circuses so beloved of his fellow citizens.

“I could forgive the circus all its cruelty, blood, and vulgarity,” he wrote, “if it wasn’t so interminably boring.”

And that’s the problem with the manner in which the latter day social critics on both sides of the aisle express themselves: They are downright boring.

Whatever happened to bons mots—the swift, elegant, and often hugely funny, put downs that were a regular feature of conversation and debate when I was a young? Today, it seems, they’ve gone the way of the dodo.

When it came to bons mots few could equal the mastery of Oscar Wilde. Never the sporting type, he summed up fox hunting as “the unspeakable engaged in the pursuit of the uneatable.”

“America,” he declared, “is the only nation to have gone from barbarism to decadence without a period of civilization in between.”

He was particularly known for the tart rejoinder. Asked at a pretentious literary party if he was enjoying himself, he replied: “Well, there’s nothing else to enjoy here, is there?”

Even on his death bed in a dreary boarding house in Dunkirk, France, Wilde was unable to resist a quip. “Either that wallpaper goes or I do,” he declared.

Wilde was one of the few people to get the better of the playwright George Bernard Shaw, himself no mean exponent of the bon mot. Shaw once fulsomely praised a particularly witty quip by Wilde. “I wish I’d said that,” he remarked. “Don’t worry, Bernard,” Wilde replied, “One day you will.”

Shaw was no less a master of the cutting riposte. One day the noted Victorian actress and beauty Mrs Patrick Campbell sought to compliment Shaw by light-heartedly suggesting they have a child together.

“Imagine how wonderful it would be to combine my beauty with your brains,” she exclaimed.

Shaw dismissed the idea out of hand. “No, madam,” he replied, “Think what a catastrophe it would be if it were to have my beauty and your brains.”

Sir Winston Churchill was similarly fast on his feet. Lady Astor, the British Parliamentarian and socialite, outraged by some statement by Churchill, blurted out: “Sir, if you were my husband I would put poison in your tea.”

“Madam,” replied Churchill suavely, “If I were your husband, I should drink it.”

Returned to the opposition benches in the House of Commons after the Second World War, Church complimented the man who had unseated him, the socialist Prime Minister Clement Attlee. “Mr. Attlee is a very modest man …” Churchill began. After pausing, he added, “But then he has much to be modest about …”

On the other side of the House, socialist spokesman Michael Foot was noted for his acerbic wit. He was frequently at odds with Brendan Bracken, a fiery, red headed Irishman who served as Churchill’s Parliamentary Secretary.

“He is a complete phony,” Foot once exasperatedly exclaimed,

“Even his hair, which looks like a wig, is real!”

A quick wit can also have practical uses. It saved Robert Clive, former Governor of Bengal for the British East India Company, from impeachment.

Clive returned to England from India in the latter part of the 18th Century, having amassed a fabulous fortune worth millions upon millions of dollars in today’s money. His political enemies soon accused him of abusing his governorship by ruthlessly plundering the people he ruled.

Standing before the bar of the House of Commons, Clive heard the prosecution detail the bribes he had received—vast piles of gems, including rubies, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and pearls, and thousands of lakhs (an Indian unit of 100,000) of gold coins. “What do you have to say to that?” he was asked.

“When I think of what I might have had,” he replied, “I am astonished at my moderation!” He was exonerated completely.

Among the sharpest wits in my youth was John Grosser, a colleague at The Times of London. Grosser, a parliamentary correspondent, towered well over six foot. He was a Rugby and field hockey international, and, incongruously perhaps, a noted bon viveur and dandy.

One day, in pouring rain, Grosser’s Saville Row tailor delivered a new, superbly cut Irish tweed suit to his fashionable apartment, a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament. Grosser was quite unable resist the urge to show it off. “But one drop of rain on it and all the creases will come out,” he wailed to the apartment block’s doorman who escorted him to a waiting taxi under the shelter of a vast umbrella.

Ensconced in the cab, Grosser instructed the driver not to drop at the gate but take him directly to St. Stephen’s entrance.

“It is a simply glorious example of the tailor’s art,” he gushed, preening himself, “The softest Irish tweed. Very hard to cut. Only a master can handle it. The trouble is a drop of rain on it, dearie, and all the creases will come out! But I simply couldn’t resist wearing it. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”

The driver dropped him off as he was bidden, and, having been paid off with a handsome tip, could no longer restrain himself. “Here, mate,” he jeered, “All you bleedin’ need is earrings!”

“Earrings, dearie?” retorted Grosser, quick as a flash, “Never with tweed!” GPH✠

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