British gentlemen are the undisputed masters of the put-down, with a long and distinguished history of laughing at absolutely everything. We are famous for being rude to each other but for doing so with brio.
Our present-day leaders have inherited a sparkling line in withering put-downs from the likes of former Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill. However, many would have been forgiven for thinking that today’s bias towards political correctness, positive thinking and middling mediocrity had sounded the death knell for the witty put-down. Indeed, after the dour days of Gordon Brown it seemed that our great linguistic tradition had come to an end. In a battle of wit, MPs appeared to be only half-qualified. Yet perhaps all is not lost. This year, a pre-election PMQs went viral after David Cameron responded to a dig from the Labour opposition with:
‘I am sure that you enjoy a game of bingo, it’s the only time you will ever get close to Number 10’.
Judging by the hits this racked up on social media, the British public still values charisma over policy.
Gentlemen, real repartee takes effort. After all, it requires an exceptionally quick mind to come up with quip after quip. The ever quotable masters of the acerbic riposte, such as Disraeli, Churchill and Oscar Wilde, devoted years of their lives to preparing their impromptu remarks and it’s possible that they often had their replies ready and waiting. When Disraeli was asked to explain the difference between a misfortune and a calamity, he shot back the answer:
‘If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. If anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity.’
A gentleman should always rise above the thoughtless insult. Put-downs are more subtle beasts. It’s about something more than just being rude – it’s about being witty at the same time. The most satisfying examples take the form of repartee, and Churchill was primus inter pares when it came to acerbic wit. On one occasion, Churchill dealt with George Bernard Shaw in his usual way. Shaw wrote to Churchill:
‘I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play, bring a friend… if you have one’. To which he received the reply: ‘Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second… if there is one.’
Sarah Bernhardt: ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’
Oscar Wilde (yes, we know he’s Irish): ‘I don’t mind if you burn’
Benjamin Disraeli on William Gladstone: ‘He has not a single redeeming defect’
Winston Churchill on Clement Attlee: ‘A modest man, who has much to be modest about’
Bessie Braddock: ‘Winston, you are drunk!’
Churchill: ‘Bessie, my dear, you are ugly. But, tomorrow, I shall be sober’
Lady Astor: ‘Winston, if you were my husband, I would poison your coffee’
Churchill: ‘Nancy, if you were my wife, I should drink it’
Churchill (After being disturbed while on the loo by the Lord Privy Seal): ‘Tell him I can only deal with one shit at a time’
Squire: ‘If I had a son who was an idiot, by Jove, I’d make him a parson’
Rev Sydney Smith: ‘Very probably, but I see your father was of a different mind’
The 4th Earl of Sandwich: ‘Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox’
John Wilkes: ‘That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress’
Sir Thomas Beecham to a cellist: ‘Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands and all you can do is scratch it’
And one from an American: Groucho Marx: ‘She got her good looks from her father, he’s a plastic surgeon’