The lost art of the well-bred insult.
When the first parliament met in London, way back in 1265, disagreements were as rife as they are in today’s assemblies, but the hurling of insults in those days often resulted in drawn swords and angry blows, because there was no one in charge to rebuke or expel offenders for their ungentlemanly conduct.
This was remedied at Westminster when a neutral, non-partisan authority was appointed in 1377 as the presiding officer. Since then a semblance of law and order has prevailed most of the time, over there and over here in our own Ottawa assembly. He is always referred to as Mr. Speaker, and his parliamentary priority is to maintain sufficient decorum among the MPs and help facilitate protocol and debate. Sadly there are times, particularly at Question Period in our own House of Commons, when the incessant puerile heckling from the benches, under the guise of party solidarity, reminds visitors of a noisy, unsupervised kindergarten.
Occasionally though, these bastions of democracy have produced statesmen of great eloquence, whose voices have cut through the rabble noise and the mundane dronings of their lesser colleagues and political opponents. Their wisdom and stirring words have often galvanized not only their political audiences, but the whole nation they served.
Such a man was Winston Spencer Churchill. I grew up listening to his call to arms. His voice boomed out regularly from our family radio. And although his wartime words created a ready response, it was his mastery of language throughout his long career, before and after the conflict, that made a lasting impression on so many of us. He studied his native tongue, coined the soaring phrases and regularly devastated political opponents and carping critics, with his wit and immense vocabulary. But all of his oratory and perhaps many of his put-downs were carefully rehearsed. F.E. Smith, England’s hard drinking Lord Chancellor, tartly accused Winston of “devoting the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches!”
Nevertheless, he was renowned for his rapid retorts. For instance on the literary scene, when George Bernard Shaw sent him a note which read “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play: bring a friend…if you have one”. Churchill wrote back, “Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second…if there is one!” Shaw always considered the world around him rather tedious, which prompted the critic Israel Zangwill to quip, “The way Bernard Shaw believes in himself is very refreshing in these atheistic days, when so many people believe in no God at all!” But Churchill was always a bigger target. The acidic Lady Aster, a leading hostess of London society, announced in a loud voice to one and all, “Winston, if you were my husband I would poison your coffee!” To which he replied “Nancy, if you were my wife, I would happily drink it!”
But perhaps Winston’s best lines were reserved to mock the leader of the socialist government which took power away from his Tories in 1945. Clement Atlee was a small, intense man with a little moustache, the butt of British cartoonists’ humour, but he was the new Prime Minister, and Churchill’s party was relegated to the opposition benches. From there he jokingly referred to Atlee as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing…a modest man who has much to be modest about.”
The newly elected socialist Labour Party quickly introduced schemes to absorb under state control most of the private companies which operated health services, railways, steel mills and coal mines. It was called Nationalisation and these ill-conceived initiatives soon produced all sorts of bureaucratic log jams, abuses and industry strikes.
So when the opportunity presented itself for Churchill to score one of his best put-downs, he took it with relish. One morning he popped into the House of Commons men’s room and saw Attlee standing at a urinal. He shuffled to the opposite end of the room, well away from his nemesis. “Feeling stand-offish today, are we Winston?” whined Atlee. “That’s right.” replied Churchill. “Every time you see something big, you want to nationalize it!”
Churchill was a gentleman, born and bred with an old school reverence for the opposite sex, but as with the challenge that I’ve already mentioned from Lady Aster, he could be cutting and cruel in his response to female criticism, particularly from a politician. Bessie Braddock was an enormous woman, blousy, red-faced and full of scorn for the moneyed elite that the Tory opposition represented.
She came up the hard way through the ranks of the Labour Party and spoke her mind bluntly and regularly, to the delight of the British media. But she met her match in Winny, when one evening at an all-party soirée she loudly exclaimed, “Winston, you are drunk!” The old warrior put down his glass and rumbled a response which delighted his Tory faithful. “Bessie, my dear,” said he, “you are ugly. But tomorrow, I shall be sober!”
To be continued
(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)