I was going through my correspondence the other day when I came across a letter from Matthew Parris, which was nice, as although we have only met a couple of times, he seems a most agreeable and amiable type. Not many people have made the move from one of the two most unpopular professions in Britain (politics) to the other (journalism) without leaving a stain on his image . . .
I read his letter. In it he said that he was putting together an anthology of prose in which people said scornful things about each other, and as he was too busy to read the whole of world literature, he was relying partly on the help of friends to come up with ideas, so if I had any candidates . . .
Two days later, while I was still pondering on this and having got no further than the idea of looking up HL Mencken for some really good examples of scorn, I received a package through the post. It was a pre-publication copy of a book called Scorn, described on the cover as an anthology of discourtesy, invective, ridicule, etc. I was just about to say to myself, "Poor old Matthew Parris, someone else has got there first", when I noticed that on the cover it also said: "Chosen by Matthew Parris".
Somewhat stunned by the speed at which Matthew had got the book out, though also slightly hurt at his decision to go ahead with the book without even waiting to hear from me, I then had the brilliant idea of looking at the date on the letter he had written to me. The letter was over a year old. I think that tells you something about the state of my correspondence files, as well as the speed with which I respond to friends' requests. Relieved that I would no longer have to help Parris with his book, I looked through this slim but chunky volume, which would make an ideal Christmas present for a testy relation or choleric friend, and was soon laughing happily and generously at the ingenuity with which members of the human race insult each other.
I like this from Heinrich Heine: "It is extremely difficult for a Jew to be converted, for how can he bring himself to believe in the divinity of another Jew?" I like the way Parris has hit on little sequences of insults, such as Disraeli on Gladstone: "He has not a single redeeming defect", followed by Mrs Gladstone on Gladstone ("If you weren't such a great man, you'd be a terrible bore") and Churchill on Gladstone ("Mr Gladstone read Homer for fun, which I thought served him right") . …