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.
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?
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?