Settling for Silver

The house phone rang.

La Rochefoucauld, said a voice, which rose during the last syllable to a little whinny.

What? I said. Is that you, Thumper? I can’t understand a word you say. Besides, she’s out.

La Rochefoucauld, he said, testily this time, for it was indeed Thumper. I know she is. The second most quoted. His Maxims.

Good try, I said, but no.

Whitney Houston then?

Only one attempt allowed at a time, I said.


I was touched that he was trying to help, but it really isn’t a guessing game. The answer is available to anyone who can remember and type the word ‘Google’.

Mr Putin, I reflected a minute later, undoubtedly knows about Google but probably can’t use it, having banned it.

Because the house phone rang again.

Putin here, said the voice. (This was in Russian.) Listen.

No, you listen!

I started (or as we sometimes say ‘embarked on’) an account of the man’s many failings.

I noticed, mid-tirade, that Mr Putin was giggling. This was uncharacteristic. The man has never before given any sign that he might have the least sense of humour – particularly as regards his many failings.

It was not Mr Putin at all, of course, it was the dawn chorus of the unattached having a laugh.

Fooled again!

I flushed red all over.

What a trite, self-satisfied little man La Rochefoucauld was, I thought minutes later – by what process of association I can only imagine. I was recovering my equanimity. I can’t believe that Thumper rates him. Probably he was just showing off.

And then, quicker than a finger up a choirboy’s cassock, here was Popes Я Us.

How on earth did you get this telephone number?

Popes Я Us cackled unpleasantly. It was clear that their dander was up.

Don’t trifle with Our Mother the Church, little man, they said.

They read me what sounded like a prepared statement. They allowed (or as we sometimes say ‘brooked’) no interruption. It was dreary stuff. In what they obviously thought was their killer point they drew my attention to the fact that BORGIA was a trade mark registered throughout the European Union in the name of none other than Popes Я Us.

Cut to the crucifixion, I said.

But that was it; they’d shot their bolt.

I had nothing to say, so silence ensued.

After a moment, they said:

Have you nothing to say?

I reconsidered.

Yes, actually, I said. Who do you think is the second most quoted person in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations?

Holy Mary Mother of God! ejaculated my interlocutor.


I hung up.

I had forgotten to say, God bless.

I don’t know what the great mystery is. The answer did surprise me, but there it is in black and white.

It is not Winston Churchill, Keats ‘n Shelley, Bob Dylan or even any of the personages in or behind the Bible.

The runner-up’s medal goes to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

How times change! If you had asked me before I would have said that Tennyson, although a top man in his day, elevated to the peerage for his poetical activities and a personal favourite of Queen Victoria, managed only three quotable things.

One, of course, is:

Ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum
The curse is come upon me said
The Lady of Shallot

(I quote from memory.)


Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

And that is memorable not because it is a good line but because his lordship had been too vain to wear his specs when he visited his local railway station and thought that trains (a recent invention) ran not on rails but in grooves.

Two quotes, two cheap laughs.

(In the interests of fairness and balance I should acknowledge Doug Cocks – Australian, ecologist and thinker – who regarded it as such a good line that he took it for the title of his book The Ringing Grooves of Change: Mid-future possibilities for the global system.

Doug Cocks and mid-future possibilities for the global system!

Making three cheap laughs.)

The third quotable thing of Tennyson’s is the whole of The Revenge: a Ballad of the Fleet. This reduces me to tears every time I hear or read it, partly because when I was a child my dear father used to sing The Revenge in Charles Stanford’s musical setting. The work is stuffed with good strong lines, but not A List quotes, I wouldn’t have thought; not the stuff to beat Alexander Pope into Bronze with.

This is my view. Who cares what anyone said a hundred and fifty years ago? We live in what Popes Я Us like to call the Twenty-First Century. And I’d be inclined to attribute Tennyson’s Silver to the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the Victorian age rather than any intrinsic superiority in the quotability space to, say, John Lennon. But since we have – since we have been blessed with – Oxford (that sweet city with her dreaming spires), the Oxford University Press and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, it ill becomes us to consider that we might know better than they do.

Or what’s a heaven for?


Son of Clarifications

The last post (as I understand it is called in military circles) proved to be controversial and I need to make one or two clarifications.

I received an email from the dawn chorus of the unattached. I wondered briefly why they didn’t leave a Comment, as my friend The Porridge Man, for example, would undoubtedly have done, but the reason is clear. They would have squabbled over choosing the password.

(I assume that you need to make up a password to leave a Comment. I don’t of course. It is one of the privileges of authorship. It comes with my registration with WordPress. I can even leave Comments on the blogs of other WordPress bloggers without providing a password. So I don’t know. But Marina, a good friend who has featured in these pages, has told me that she is unable to leave a Comment, not because she can’t think of one – she is after all a published writer of real books and a woman of acknowledged wit, compassion and depth of thought – but because it is too complicated.)

Anyway, this is what the dawn chorus of the unattached wrote, frothing figuratively at the mouth:

Of course your dear friend P is right. David Cameron is a werewolf. Bonjela said so in her blog. And what’s more, what’s more, Ed Miliband is a Jew.

I hesitate, sighing as always over the primitive Russian approach to Diversity. Live and let live is my motto. I also believe that there is good in all of us, irrespective of colour or creed. If David Cameron turns into a wolf at certain times of the month, good on him. Let him cherish those feral moments and channel them to stick it to the Frenchies and the Krauts.

And of course to the Russians themselves, now that their wilting population is to be massively augmented by Gerard Depardieu, as well (it is rumoured) as by Brigitte Bardot and other foreigners. These people apparently prefer publicly to embrace a regime that is prepared to condemn its own sick children to a lifetime of grotesque and squalid institutionalisation in order to make a cheap political point, rather than to do what any self-respecting Englishman would do and engage a competent tax accountant.

Greed as always calls to greed across national and racial boundaries.

Talking of which, the email from the dawn chorus of the unattached is followed almost at once by a message (I believe that they are technically called ‘bulls’) from Vatican City. This is from an organisation, no doubt a Papal quango of some sort, asserting independence from His Holiness but infested with placemen, always up for a bit of skulduggery if it will achieve a day or two’s relief from the great bonfire hereafter.

The organisation is called Popes Я Us, founded AD [no nonsense about the ‘Common Era’ from these lads] 50, Motto: Is the Pope a Catholic?

The message is written in almost competent English.

Popes Я Us regret my remarks about Pope Alexander, which they characterise as ‘cavalier’ and later in the email, when they get their second wind, as ‘second-degree sinful’. They point out that Pope Alexander was not so much an individual as ‘a brand’. There were Popes Alexander before and after the unfortunate VI and his demise, eaten away from the inside by a massive quantity of arsenic. They inform me that in what they call the Twenty-First Century we now know that it wasn’t arsenic anyway but a bad case of flu, and that this has been established ‘beyond peradventure’ by ‘Catholic scientists’.

(‘Beyond peradventure’! Do they get reruns of Rumpole on Vatican cable TV by any chance? And what in heaven’s name is a ‘Catholic scientist’?)

They draw my attention to the tomb of Alexander VII, which was designed by Bernini, is to be found in the Vatican and is generally regarded as rather good if you like that sort of thing.

I am happy to concede, and I have told them so, that the Borgia Pope was not the only Alexander, but I make two points to Popes Я Us. I do so with the modesty appropriate to a person who will undoubtedly burn throughout eternity for the mortal sin of having inspected the modern Roman church with its nasty buildings, lumpish music and leering priests, and decided against.

First, if I had differentiated Roderic Borgia from the other Alexanders it would have made my Pope Alexander/Alexander Pope joke completely unmanageable. And God hates more than anything a fumbled joke.

Secondly, if you are as big a bastard as he was you deserve to overshadow your namesakes. Alexanders I to V could not help their adopted Papal names but what on earth possessed VII? He decided voluntarily to take the name of a sexually incontinent mobster and mass-murderer who had died horribly after ingesting the only remaining phial of arsenic that was left after he had used the rest to poison his own enemies.

It’s as if the worthy Ed Miliband, on eventually achieving power, announced that he was changing his name to ‘Putin’.

Finally, thank God, someone who approves. The Hon Sec of a fan club for Alexander Pope writes to say how nice it is to see him acknowledged. He, the Hon Sec, lists the poet’s many virtues, all of which I endorse. He then points out that Pope is the third most quoted person in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Not many people know that – though it’s not surprising when you read what he said. But – third. Shakespeare first, obviously, and then who? Dickens? Homer? Groucho Marx? Goethe? Mr Putin? You’d never guess.

Googling Lampreys

I went to Great Secret Miss. Someone let me in. Across the room Amy looked up, saw it was me, and said:

Oh, good.

Anthony Powell says, or at any rate has his character Nick Jenkins say

There is, after all, no pleasure like that given by a woman who really wants to see you.

Nick is talking about Jean Templar, who has just opened the door of her flat to him quite naked, and Nick’s passion for Jean reverberates through all twelve books of the series. ‘Passion’ is perhaps the right word only for a brief passage in volume three, but there is an itchy preoccupation with her at all other times. In my case, Amy was fully clothed and our relationship is simply one of friendship born of a shared interest in kefir and gossip, although when, as I have recorded, she showed me her pubic hair to assist in a discussion about Diversity I had to go and sit down quietly for a few minutes.

All things considered I was happy that she wanted to see me.

In the case of the better half there is indeed passion, reverberating, I hope, through the volumes that I have left, and there is no pleasure like that when she wakes up, sees me across the pillow and is glad to do so.

Much of the time.

That was during the day time and much later I had gone to bed. I was reading a book given to me by daughter two for Christmas about creatures that have survived from millions and in some cases billions of years ago. It’s called Survivors, by Richard Fortey. I was reading the chapter about lampreys, which apparently mark a significant stage in the process by which our remote Darwinian ancestors emerged from the sea and colonised the land for the first time. In spite of their importance in the grand march of evolution lampreys are not sympathetic creatures. They have no jaws (zoologically that makes them Agnatha, like the singer from Abba) but a round mouth with teeth, which they fasten onto a chosen victim and suck. The book tells us that they can ‘empty’ a salmon in no time at all.

Worryingly, there are both salt-water and fresh-water lampreys. I am familiar with stories about eels wriggling through water meadows and fastening their mouths onto the teats of cattle in order to drink the milk. If eels (to which lampreys are not related) can empty cows’ udders can lampreys empty whole cows? And if so who among us is safe?

For all these reasons, but mainly because of a texture and taste that reminded me irresistibly of sewage, I decided when I ate my first lamprey ten years or so ago in St Petersburg, my parents-in-laws’ and their daughter’s jaws across the table a blur of enthusiastic mastication, that it would also be my last.

The better half was still downstairs hooting with laughter into the telephone. She was having her nightly chucklefest with our dear friend P. I have always found it hard to discern what is so funny about the things that our dear friend P has to say, but the better half assures me that much is lost in the translation.

Anyway, it came to an end and the better half came to bed.

Our dear friend P says that David Cameron is a werewolf, she said, removing her outer clothing. She read it on a blog.

To avoid, I confess, a discussion about our dear friend P’s barmy convictions, I changed the subject.

According to this book, I said, they no longer eat lampreys in Lithuania, where it was formerly a delicacy. But they still eat them round the coast in St Petersburg, don’t they? We have. Your mother particularly likes to take on a lamprey.

Late at night the imagination is at its most unruly, isn’t it, and I had a sudden image of my mother-in-law nose to nose with one of the little creatures – a face-off, as it were. Evens, I would have assessed their respective chances, apart from the important consideration that the lamprey would already be dead.

The better half has just acquired, in festive circumstances, a tablet computer, so with a flourish she attempted to Google the lamprey. Since the machine has predictive text and lampreys are not a priority in its little world view, this took some time. I suggested that since I was reading a whole book on the subject Wikipedia was unlikely to have anything to add.

A whole book on lampreys?

A chapter.

As the better half tried to circumvent the helpful features of her Christmas present I told her that Henry 1 had famously died of a surfeit of lampreys.

At that moment the Wikipedia entry finally revealed itself on her little screen.

English king Henry 1 died of a surfeit of lampreys, she shouted.

I know. I just said.

What is a surfeit?

It’s a type of pie, I think. Our Queen was given a pie of lampreys when she got crowned and again when she had a jubilee. It was probably the same thing. Alexander Pope died of it too.

Pope Alexander?

No, Alexander Pope. Pope Alexander died of a surfeit of arsenic. And serve him right. Alexander Pope. The proper study of mankind is man man.

Again the little fingers flashed over the keyboard. I looked over her shoulder. She had found a website entitled ‘Quotable Quotes of Alexander Pope: a Treasure Trove for the Public Speaker’.

Ha! she said several times, presumably in recognition. Pope said surprisingly many things that everyone knows and it is unfair that he should always be confused with the Borgias. He was unnaturally small and never healthy, but he was on the side of the angels in which he didn’t believe, and rarely if ever resorted to poisoning others.

Then she quoted:

No woman ever hates a man for being in love with her; but mainly a woman hates a man for being her friend.

I hope not, I said, thinking back to my reception at Great Secret Miss and my pleasure because of it.

Here’s another one, said the better half. His last words:

All right, just one more lamprey. And then I really must be going.