How Clive James said obvious things

Or, making the self-evident shine, dance, and catch the light

The key to a good compliment is originality. Clive James was, according to The New Yorker, “a brilliant bunch of guys.” That’s so much better than calling him a Renaissance man, a fact James knew in his/their bones.

The critic, poet, novelist, Australian, and TV host died last week at 80. In his lifetime, I knew that he’d:

  1. Said Arnold Schwarzenegger looked like “a brown condom full of walnuts.”

  2. Written The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered, the perfect poem of literary schadenfreude. 

  3. Defined a sense of humour as “common sense, dancing.”

There was much more where that came from. He wrote about Japanese game shows and Hamlet and Orwell and Fellini, and he thought it was all old news. With this, he went out of his way to say it in the most novel way he could.

Or as he put it:

“All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light. There was a time when I got hot under the collar if the critics said I had nothing new to say. Now I realise that they had a point. My field is the self-evident. Everything I say is obvious, although I like to think that some of the obvious things I have said were not so obvious until I said them.”

Let me put a fresh coat of paint on it: Everything you have to say is obvious — so at least say it with a twist. On that note, here’s something obvious: When people die, we say all manner of nice things about them just because we should. Then we promptly forget them.

Is Clive James worth remembering? Will a leisurely flip through his pages cause one to dive deeper based solely on the sparkle of a few good sentences? Based on an enjoyable hour with Cultural Cohesion: The Essential Essays, the answer is yes.

Here’s a passing line about the Library of America series:

“Its volumes begged irresistibly to be picked up, like brilliant children.” 

And here’s his riff on the great apocryphal line wherein Michelangelo says he sculpted David by simply chipping away all the marble that didn’t look like David:

“[Robert] Lowell thinks that he is chipping away the marble to get at the statue. It’s more likely that he is trying to build a statue out of marble chips.”

Of course, an insult is often where the wit burns hottest, and so it’s a pleasure to see how James backs into this one about a shoddy edition of a great book:

“Required Writing would be a treasure house even if every second page were printed upside down. Lacking the technology to accomplish this, the publishers have issued the book in paperback only, with no index, as if to prove that no matter how self-effacing its author might be, they can be even more so on his behalf.”

James was terminally ill for the last decade, the upside of which is he confronted his own mortality at length and with wit. Is there anything original to say about the final subject of them all? Sure, you can use it as an excuse to dunk on Microsoft:

“[W]hen it comes to the last word, I will multi-punch the laptop’s keyboard with my face, my fingers only halfway through the sequence that activates the most sadly beautiful of all modern rubrics, Windows Is Shutting Down. And English grammar are checking out.”

Quick quips; lightning

“Landscape painting is the obvious resource of misanthropy.”
— William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

One of those lines that comes to mind every time you wander through an art gallery.

Among the smaller duties of life I hardly know any one more important than that of not praising where praise is not due.” — Sydney Smith (1771-1845)

By this logic, some of the best criticism is stony silence. 🤐

“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.” — Henry, in The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard (1937-)

Sentimental, but just this once we’ll allow it.

This ends the 23th issue of Get Wit Quick, where common sense does the Macarena each week. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was rarely remaindered, so my enemies can stuff it. Share Clive’s best lines by tapping the ❤️ below.

How to ghost like P.G. Wodehouse

Or, a British take on the French Exit

“What ho!” I said.
“What ho!” said Motty.
“What ho! What ho!”
“What ho! What ho! What ho!”
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.
— P.G. Wodehouse, writing in Carry On, Jeeves.

To perfectly capture this nonsensical sort of upper-crust English repartee, P.G. Wodehouse first had to escape it. The writer was by all accounts a social disaster; bad at both small talk and big talk. But boy, could he write it.

“Oh, Jeeves,” I said; “about that check suit.”
“Yes, sir?”
“Is it really a frost?”
“A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.”
“But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is.”
“Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.”
“He's supposed to be one of the best men in London.”
“I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.”

In the early 1920s, Wodehouse was stuck in London and the social life thereof. He was a member of The Constitutional Club, The Garrick Club, The Savage Club, and the Beefsteak Club, and put in regular appearances at all of them. As his biographer Robert McCrum wrote, “For a shy, private man who had difficulty with small-talk, Wodehouse was surprisingly clubbable.” The environs gave him plenty of material for his 96 (!) books, but they also kept him from his typewriter. 

As he wrote to a friend: “I find it the hardest job to get at the stuff here. We have damned dinners and lunches which just eat up the time. I find that having a lunch hanging over me kills my morning’s work, and dinner isn’t much better.’

And so he developed what his friends and family called The Wodehouse Glide. It was described thusly by a friend:

“At about half-past ten — for we always dined early — we suddenly started rushing through the streets, at Plum’s prodigious pace, until a point where, just as suddenly, he had vanished and gone. No lingering farewells from that quarter. I might hear him saying Good-night, from the middle of the traffic; I might catch a glimpse of his rain-coat swinging across the road. But the general effect was that he had just switched himself off.”

There are many synonyms for this move — the French Exit, the Irish Goodbye, the Insert-Nationality-Here-Disappearance, ghosting — and as rude as it may seem, it’s far superior to the alternatives. Do you really want to go over to your host, thank them effusively, and thereby let everyone in earshot know that the party’s over? Admittedly, it’s harder to do and conspicuously ruder in a one-on-one situation.

Which may explain why Wodehouse’s famed butler Jeeves was always finding new ways to quietly enter and exit a room. 

“As every Wodehouse aficionado from England to India—where he is exceedingly popular—knows, Jeeves never walks. He materialises or shimmers or floats or glides or slides like a liquid mix of eel and ectoplasm,” The Economist wrote on what would have been the author’s 100th birthday.

Ultimately, the best way to master your own version of the Wodehouse Glide is to follow this description of Jeeves’ exit:

“He seemed to flicker and wasn’t there any more.”


Quick quips; lightning

“Certainly, there is nothing else here to enjoy.”
— George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), on being asked if he was enjoying himself at a particularly dull party.

“There is nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster.”
— Saki (H.H. Munro, 1870-1916); to which the bashful shellfish says … nothing.

“At heart he was misanthropic and gifted with the sly, sharp instinct for self-preservation that passes for wisdom among the rich.”
— Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), describing another one of his suspiciously autobiographical characters.

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This concludes the 22th issue of Get Wit Quick, a weekly — hey, where’d you go? At least tap the ❤️on your way out!

The world vs. Edith Sitwell vs. the world

Or, vice versa

Edith Sitwell was an English poet of the early 20th century, part of a famous family, and a revolving door of quippery. She described herself as an “unpopular electric eel in a pool of catfish”; she had Marfan syndrome; she wrote several bestselling books of Elizabethan history; and her father installed a sign at their estate that proclaimed “I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”

The second line of her unfortunate Wikipedia page reads: “She reacted badly to her eccentric, unloving parents and lived much of her life with her governess.” (Having died in 1964, she never had to read her unfortunate Wikipedia page.) She’s also a reminder that every era is a noisy, complicated mess of cliques, conversations, and confrontations that eventually gets flattened out by historians on steamrollers. In the process, we lose the dimensionality of a character who was as critical of others as she was sensitive, the sort of English eccentric who wrote the book on English Eccentrics

Happily, Edith Sitwell distinguished herself with a series of acid observations about her contemporaries:

“I do not want Miss Mannin’s feelings to be hurt by the fact that I have never heard of her. At the moment I am debarred from the pleasures of putting her in her place by the fact she has not got one.” — On Ethel Mannin

“I enjoyed talking to her but thought nothing of her writing. I considered her a beautiful little knitter.” — On Virginia Woolf

“Mr Lawrence looked like a plaster gnome on a stone toadstool in some suburban garden. ...He looked as if he had just returned from spending an uncomfortable night in a very dark cave.” — On D.H. Lawrence

“It is sad to see Milton’s great lines bobbing up and down in the sandy desert of Dr. Leavis’s mind with the grace of a fleet of weary camels.” — On F.R. Leavis

To which her contemporaries said, “Right back at ya, Edith” as follows:

“Then Edith Sitwell appeared, her nose longer than an anteater’s, and read some of her absurd stuff.” — Lytton Strachey

“I am fairly unrepentant about her poetry. I really think that three quarters of it is gibberish. However, I must crush down these thoughts, otherwise the dove of peace will shit on me.” — Noël Coward

“So you’ve been reviewing Edith Sitwell’s last piece of virgin dung, have you? Isn’t she a poisonous thing of a woman, lying, concealing, flipping, plagiarizing, misquoting, and being as clever a crooked literary publicist as ever.” — Dylan Thomas

“I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty … But I am too busy thinking about myself.” — Edith Sitwell, piling on.

Dame Edith’s attitude toward such criticism was perfect: “All the Pipsqueakery are after me in full squeak,” she said, a line that fits nicely alongside Margaret Atwood’s “Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.” 

When insulted, the best course is generally to smile and turn the other cheek. But if Edith Sitwell had done that, she’d be much less memorable. Sometimes, you just have to roll up your sleeves and fight back.


Quick quips; lightning

“He hasn’t an enemy in the world, and none of his friends like him.”
— Oscar Wilde 

Saint Oscar (1854-1900) on his frenemy George Bernard Shaw and the perils of standing in the middle of the road.

“Anger makes dull men witty, but it keeps them poor.” — Francis Bacon

In which the English philosopher (1561-1626) describes a subject of Elizabeth I who forgets what side his bread is buttered and becomes crusty toward his queen.

“Calumnies are best answered with silence.” — Ben Jonson 

The advice of the English dramatist (1573-1637) is good for personal preservation but bad for long-term quotability.

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This concludes the 21st issue of Get Wit Quick, a uniquely weekly pipsqueakery. Is there such a thing as a popular electric eel? Less than a quarter of my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was gibberish. Your gastric juices will function more freely after tapping the ❤️below.

How to be quoted

Or, your ticket to the pantheon of wit

Enough already, Oscar Wilde. 

Pipe down, Dorothy Parker. 

Put a sock in it, Winston Churchill. 

Any collector of witticisms sees the same names over and over again. And yes, even when you remove the sketchy attributions, it’s clear that The Great Wits said more than their fair share of zingers. But that’s also why it’s so refreshing to come across a much-quoted line by a little-known wit. Like this gem:

“If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn’t it follow that electricians can be delighted; musicians denoted; cowboys deranged; models deposed; tree surgeons debarked and dry cleaners depressed?” — Virginia Ostman

On the metric of pith per unit text, this ranks quite high. Yes, the formula quickly becomes obvious and yes, it owes something to P.G. Wodehouse, he of the classic line “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” But you have to hand to Ms. Ostman for squeezing every drop out of the premise.

Before we can hand anything to Ms. Ostman, though, we have to find her. And though her quip appears all over the place, she’s a digital cipher. Who was Virginia Ostman? A friend of Laurence J. Peter. And who was Laurence J. Peter? A Vancouver-born professor of education who wrote a satirical book on management that was accidentally taken seriously. That book, The Peter Principle, introduced the idea that we all rise to the level of our own incompetence. In other words, once you find a job you excel at, your superiors are likely to promote you out of that job and into something you can’t possibly do.

After The Peter Principle became a huge hit, Peter retired from teaching and wrote a couple more books. Among them was Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time, and therein you’ll find that Virginia Ostman line. As for who she was, the only clue Peter provides is this shrug in his introduction:

Some of the included quotes were derived from oral sources and include lines excerpted from lectures or other live performances, as well as from the utterances of friends and relatives. The only documentation I have for these quotes is my notebook. And sometimes my memory.

As we know, compilers of quotation books tend to play favorites. So it seems that the best way to join Wilde, Parker, and Churchill LLP is to know someone who regularly compiles witty sayings for a devoted readership. Hey, wait a minute! Reader, that’s you! Together we can escape the tyranny of the overquoted. Just hit reply to send me your overlooked zingers. I’ll highlight the best, and perhaps your quip will one day ricochet around the internet. Why, the next Virginia Ostman may be reading these words right now!

Quick quips; lightning

“In short, whoever you may be/
To this conclusion you’ll agree/
When everybody is somebodee/
Then no one’s anybody!

— W.S. Gilbert, predicting the rise of social media.

“Many excelled me: I know it. Yet I am quoted as much as they.”
— Ovid, suggesting that being quoted is not an indicator of excellence.

“When you see yourself quoted in print and you’re sorry you said it, it suddenly becomes a misquotation.” —Laurence J. Peter, quoting himself in Peter’s Quotations and perhaps proving the Peter Principle.

This concludes the 20th issue of Get Wit Quick, your weekly quoting of the famous, unfamous, and infamous.  I quoted them all in my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. Show, don’t tell by tapping the ❤️below.

How to be prickly like Evelyn Waugh

Or, the subtle difference between bananas and caviar

Once upon a time when newspapers were a thing, obituary writers would use clever euphemisms to tell you what the recently deceased was really like.

There’s a great bit in the 2004 movie Closer, in which Jude Law plays a nebbishy obituarist explaining his craft to Natalie Portman, who plays the character Natalie Portman always plays.

Him: [Then we] add a few euphemisms for our own amusement. 

Her: Such as? 

Him: “He was a convivial fellow.” Meaning he was an alcoholic. “He valued his privacy.” Gay. “He enjoyed his privacy.” Raging queen. 

Her: What would my euphemism be? 

Him: “She was disarming.” 

Her: That’s not a euphemism. 

Him: Yes, it is. 

With that in mind, consider these lines from The New York Times1966 obituary of English novelist Evelyn Waugh:

Mr. Waugh was not the kind of man to suffer fools gladly. He had a prickly personality. It was partly the result of shyness. A sign outside his country house warned uninvited visitors, “No admittance on business.”

“Not suffering fools gladly” is classic obituaryese for Total Jerk, and “prickly personality” upgrades that to Complete And Total Jerk. There are so many gloriously repulsive stories from Waugh’s life that it’s hard to single out the most objectionable. He was unspeakably rude to children, parents, women, Jews, foreigners, locals, gentiles, men, and everyone else. Still, this anecdote from his son Auberon sticks in the memory:

There is also a famous story … of his managing to procure a banana during the gourmet wasteland of the Second World War. The Waugh children had never seen the exotic fruit before – let alone tasted one – but their father, after showing it off proudly, covered it with cream and sugar and devoured the whole thing himself.

(Daniel Mallory Ortberg memorably called this “the most English anecdote of all time because it combines withholding fathers, unspoken resentments, quietly desperate mothers, joyless desserts, excess without pleasure, public discipline, and peeling something.”)

In addition to all this cruelty, Waugh was a wicked wit. We saw last week that the devil has the best lines because nihilism is so damned easy (and easily damned). Evelyn Waugh began life hating modern times, and when he converted to Catholicism he doubled down on that feeling. And so he gave us lines like:

News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.

Of children as of procreation— the pleasure momentary, the posture ridiculous, the expense damnable.

Punctuality is the virtue of the bored.

No writer before the middle of the 19th century wrote about the working classes other than as grotesque or pastoral decoration. Then when they were given the vote certain writers started to suck up to them. 

To see [Stephen Spender] fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.

There is a slight but worthy argument that perhaps Waugh wasn’t a Complete and Total Jerk. Another one of his children, Septimus Waugh, recalled that the infamous banana anecdote actually concerned caviar — not something you’d douse in cream and sugar, but also not of interest to children. And while he did cheer the deaths of his friends it was because “he felt doomed and he had outlasted them in the race of life.”  And while he did walk around the house singing

Oh the hell of it 

Oh the smell of it

Oh the hell of the family life.

it was because he was “a gentle melancholic man whose chief pleasure lay in parodying his condition.” Well, maybe. 

A more convincing argument for forgiving Waugh is the self-awareness evident in his novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, in which he describes an aging Catholic writer who hates the modern world as follows:

His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz — everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.  … There was a phrase in the thirties: “It is later than you think,” which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought.

The lesson: If you must be a Complete and Total Jerk, at least be a Complete and Total Jerk With A Bit of Self-Knowledge.

Quick quips; lightning

“I put the words down and push them a bit.” — Evelyn Waugh, impatiently describing his writing style.

“Like German opera, too long and too loud.” — Evelyn Waugh, impatiently describing the Battle of Crete.

“Simply a radio personality who outlived his prime.” — Evelyn Waugh, impatiently describing Winston Churchill.

This concludes the 19th issue of Get Wit Quick, your weekly indexing of Jerks, Complete and Total.  I monkeyed with our rich and delicate language in my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. Don’t eat joyless desserts. Push back against jerkdom by tapping the❤️below.

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