Category: humour

The fine art of political phrase-making

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Antony Jay’s Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations – entitled Lend Me Your Ears – is now in its fourth edition.

To mark its publication, I went to interview Antony – perhaps best known as the co-author of the “Yes, Minister” series – at his home in Somerset. You can hear the whole interview by clicking here; or you can listen to highlights by clicking on the links below.

  • My first question was: what makes a quotation a political quotation? Click here.
  • Politics is a field more prone than most to misquotation. Antony Jay discusses a notorious quote attributed to James Callaghan, which he never in fact said. Click here to find out what it was.
  • What are the challenges of pinning down who said what in the modern world of 24-hour news, blogs and soundbites? Click here.
  • Was there such a thing as a Golden Age of political phrase-making? Click here to hear Antony Jay’s view.
  • Who are some of Tony’s personal favourites among the many thousands of writers and politicians in the book? Click here to find out.
  • Finally I asked Tony about the origins of the phrase “Yes, Minister”. Click here to discover which politician first recorded it.

Summer Reading Choices: John Grindrod

John GrindrodJohn Grindrod was born in 1970 in Croydon and still lives in South London. Last year he published Shouting at the Telly, a book in which a host of comedians, actors and writers wrestle with such weighty issues as:  Is Freddie from Scooby-Doo a colossal pervert? What does Howards’ Way tell us about the eighties? How do you win America’s Next Top Model? Which programmes do you only watch when you’re off sick?

 I spoke to John about the book for the Blackwell Online podcast when it came out. You can listen to it here.

Here are John’s holiday reading choices:

Wish You Were Here cover The most obviously summery book I’ve been reading has been Travis Elborough’s hilarious and hugely informative Wish You Were Here: England on Sea, a cultural history of seaside resorts and our national obsession with piers, paddling and penny arcades. Travis grew up in Worthing and his disdain for the place colours the book, but this is as much a reconciliation with his own seaside demons as it is a gloriously eccentric travelogue around England’s largely Georgian and Victorian pleasure palaces. It’s like Coast, only with lots more laughs, no wildlife and the best footnotes you’ll ever read.

Kynaston Family Britain coverI’ve also been slowly working my way through David Kynaston’s mighty Family Britain: 1951-57. I’ve read most of the post-war histories going, but I think this series might be my favourite. There’s so much charm and personal detail in these books, with diaries and letters illuminating everyday human stories alongside the major events of the times. How he’s managed to marshal such a range of material is a mystery: for me, only Juliet Gardiner comes close in terms of the detail of research and enthusiasm for the subject matter. There’s so many gems on every page, one of my favourites being his inclusion of Kenneth Tynan’s review of The Deep Blue Sea in 1952: ‘Kenneth More is our best answer to Marlon Brando so far’.

How I Escaped my Certain FateI have to mention Stewart Lee’s beguiling How I Escaped My Certain Fate: the Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian. It’s not the sort of book you’d ever expect to read by a comic, one where they mercilessly dissect three of their most popular shows and reveal the inspiration behind jokes and the telling of them. But if you were to pick a comedian who was up to the task, it would be Lee, who is famous for deconstructing his act on stage as he goes along. It’s a unique marvel, an intelligent, provocative insight into a perverse and often self-sabotaging mind.

38. Poland – a country in the moon

Polish Winter by Michael MoranMy guest on this week’s programme is Michael Moran, author of A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland.

Michael first visited Poland in the early 1990s after the collapse of Communism as leader of an ill-assorted crew of British teachers charged with introducing the Poles to the delights of market capitalism. As a pianist, he was attracted by the music of Chopin, but confesses that he knew little about the country. He little suspected that he would fall in love with the country and end up making it his home.

A Country in the Moon – the description is Edmund Burke’s and dates from 1795, but might still stand for a country which is very little known and all too often reduced to cliché in the West – achieves something very rare for a travel book: it manages to be genuinely funny and entertaining, and also deeply thought-provoking about the many terrible chapters in Poland’s history.

Moran: A Country in the MoonThe book has been widely praised; the Guardian called it “the best contemporary travel book on Poland, reminiscent in its finest moments of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s masterful Time of Gifts” and said “No thinking traveller interested in Poland should overlook this essential book”. The Observer admired how it  “triumphantly balanc[ed] humour with scholarship”, while the Spectator called it “well-researched and hugely entertaining…  a three-star feast”.

Click on the podcast player above to find out what Michael finds so attractive about Poland – and what it is like to tour the country in a venerable old Rolls-Royce.

The cat and the cockroach

Jan ZalasiewiczI have begun asking my interviewees to recommend a book which is a particular favourite of theirs.

First up is Jan Zalasiewicz, who appeared in programme 34, “After We’ve Gone”, talking about his book, The Earth after Us. Here is his book choice:

When one digs for a living amid the rubble of deep geological time, then it’s a nice to ponder on other transmogrifications of time.  Or transmoggiefications, perhaps.  Of forgotten heroines, I have a soft spot for one of the feline world:  Mehitabel, that New York cat sure that she was Cleopatra reincarnated.

Archie and MehitabelHer exploits (mostly scandalous) were recounted by her comrade in spirit, if not in zoological affinity – Archy the cockroach.  This six-legged wit, philosopher and raconteur wrote by leaping from the top of the frame of an old-fashioned typewriter to strike, one by one, its keys with his head.

The hard-won biographical fragments, in free verse, were collected each morning by one Don Marquis and passed on to the astonished publishers (quite who trousered the royalties is unclear).   In these troubled and changing times, Mehitabel’s spirit can cheer us all.  It was one day up and the next day down, and always the devil to pay, but she was ever the lady (she insisted), ever the lady.

Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis still seems to be in print after all these years, thank goodness.

Jan Zalasiewicz

32. What made Greeks laugh?

Halliwell: Greek Laughter

“I’m trying to use laughter as a kind of prism, I suppose, through which to examine certain features of the broader culture…

“Greeks talk a lot about laughter and so there are a lot of perceptions and representations of laughter in prose texts and poetic texts… It’s used all over the place, it’s referred to, it’s discussed by philosophers and others.

“So I really wanted to use it as a prism through which to look at a wider range of Greek values and tensions with in the culture and ways in which Greeks think about many different aspects of life.”

My guest this week is Stephen Halliwell, Professor of Greek at St Andrews University and winner of this year’s Criticos Prize for the best book published on the subject of Greece, ancient or modern.

Stephen HalliwellStephen’s book, Greek Laughter, is a vast compendium of information of what made the Greeks laugh and how laughter functioned in ancient Greek society. As the book makes abundantly clear, laughter was far from unproblematic –  to be laughed down in Greek society was a deeply shameful experience – and laughter was a frequent subject of reflection for philosophers and other ancient Greek thinkers.

The book is also fascinating on the links between laughter and early Christianity (by and large, they weren’t in favour of it…) Click on the link above to hear the podcast, or subscribe at iTunes (link in right-hand column above).