Tag: politics

Presence of mind

The gift of speedy repartee is given to few, which is why the French invented that serviceable phrase ‘esprit de l’escalier’ — the crushing retort that comes into the mind after one has been chucked down the stairs and which, delivered smartly, would have crushed the enemy under a mass of ridicule.

It was always unwise to tangle with George Bernard Shaw, for example.

He once encountered a very fat man lumbering up a narrow staircase and, being in a hurry, pushed past him. “Pig!” said the fat man.

Shaw raised his hat politely and said: “Shaw. Good afternoon.”

Dorothy Parker had the gift in abundance. She and society queen bee Claire Booth Luce conducted a life-long feud and Dorothy’s waspish wit was guaranteed to keep the humourless Claire seething.

They once arrived at a social event at the same time; Claire stood aside for Dorothy to enter, saying “Age before beauty.” As Dorothy swept past her, she replied “And pearls before swine.”

Those who challenged Winston Churchill rarely came off best. As he was speaking one night in parliament, Bessie Braddock, a very large lady member of the opposition, called across the chamber: “Mr Churchill, you are drunk.”

Churchill riposted: “Madam, you are ugly — but I shall be sober in the morning.”

There is some doubt as to whether it was the eighteenth-century radical John Wilkes or the English playwright Samuel Foote who routed the crusty, dissipated Lord Sandwich in this exchange:

“I think that you must either die of the pox or the halter.”

“My lord, that will depend upon one of two contingencies — whether I embrace your lordship’s mistress or your lordship’s principles.”

In Australia, the bumptious and inexplicably dislikeable conservative politician Peter Costello was known for caustic wit. He once twitted the secular saint, Senator Bob Brown, that the Greens party he leads is like a watermelon — green outside but red inside.

The Senator rose to the challenge and said the Greens were actually like an avocado, green inside as well as outside. Costello pounced at once: “Yes, true — and with a big Brown nut in the middle.”

And there is the perhaps aprocryphal Australian parliamentary anecdote about a politician who opened a speech with the words “I’m a country member…” only to face a roar from the opposition benches of “We remember, we remember.”

A pardonable act

The tranquillity of the writers’ wing at Knocklofty Towers was disturbed the other day by what we later discovered to be the emanation of an overwrought spirit.

A loud crash of breaking glass was followed by the sound of a rather large wireless set landing on the cobbled courtyard below. The apparatus was over fifty years old and was acquired before the transistor was little more than a wriggle in Shockley’s trousers, and the bursting of all those vacuum tubes made a noise that our resident composer described as worthy of Stockhausen at his most dissonant apogee.

Our security and medical staff responded quickly and discovered one of our older writers about to light a bonfire of old Hansards in his room, from which the wireless set had been hurled.

Putting him under mild sedation, they learned from him that he had been working on an analysis of parliamentary language when he decided to pause for a cup of Knocklofty’s Bodhisatva’s Own Extra Fragrant Lapsang Souchong tea (an exclusive blend the firm has imported from a very remote part of Asia for more than two centuries) and switched on the wireless hoping to hear some news of a game of cricket.

His timing was poor. Instead of the murmur of the crowd and the well-worn wit of the commentators, what he heard was a statement by one of the more bulbous and aggressively voluble members of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the Parliament of Australia.

He asserted — and our use of modern technical means verifies it — that this was what he heard:

‘At the end of the day, when the rubber hits the road, the bottom line is that working families…’

It was the fourth in this concatenation of cliché that proved too much and that was why the wireless went through the window. The Board, at an extraordinary meeting to consider what action might be taken, agreed that they would all have done the same.

Knocklofty’s technical staff are now hard at work on systems designed to detect and eliminate that sort of political talk from the airwaves and the web, and they predict that when they succeed there will be more bandwidth for everyone.

The Knocklofty Catechism of Cliché

Everyone knows what a cliché is: a tired old phrase or expression dropped in thoughtlessly by speakers or writers who are either too lazy to express themselves properly or, much worse because it is intentional, so cynical that they know exactly what button it will push in their ignorant audience.

Take, for example, just elected or re-elected politicians who claim to be ‘humbled’ by their success. They have been selling their almost always aggressively ordinary personalities with a bag of catch-phrases, denigrating the opposition and generally bamboozling the electorate into polishing their hypertrophied egos with their votes.

This requires a more than usual degree of arrogance, hypocrisy and bumptiousness. The prize of power for which they have connived, plotted and overspent finally falls into their slavering jaws — and they’re humble? Always suspect anyone who makes a public virtue of humility.

Politics and journalism are the factories of cliché – Fox News is only the most egregious — and the history of the word itself is telling. In nineteenth-century France, when newspapers were even more astonishingly venal than they are today (hard to believe, we admit), the compositors who set the type by hand, letter by letter, would save time by reaching for a phrase or expression which, because of its familiarity, they had caused to be set against inevitable need in a single slug: a cliché, from the verb clicher, to cast, in this case appropriately in lead.

Technology has done little to battle the cliché, as a cursory glance at most blogs will show. But there is some hope. Editors of the Tasmanian Hansard, the reports of parliamentary debates, have developed a set of macros which will eliminate such expressions as ‘at the end of the day’ (voted most annoying cliché of 2006) with very few keystrokes.

Knocklofty intends to keep an eye on fashions in cliché. Many Australians will recall a period in which politicians, prominent usurers and other dubious public figures would regularly ‘refuse to resile’ from whatever position they had felt it expedient or profitable to adopt for the nonce. The expression fell out of fashion round about the end of the day.