Magazine article The Spectator

Have You Heard the One about General Stoughton and the Floozie?

Magazine article The Spectator

Have You Heard the One about General Stoughton and the Floozie?

Article excerpt

The trouble with the world', said my old friend Vicky, the cartoonist, `is that there are not enough jokes.' In fact there are plenty, but not enough find their way into print. My tutor, A.J.P. Taylor, told me, `Don't bother to write history if no one reads your books. A work of history should be as enthralling as a good novel. Even a good comic novel. After all, real life, especially at the top, is not exactly dull, is it? People spend a much larger portion of their lives laughing than weeping. So why isn't this reflected in the history books?'

It is, to a limited extent. Gibbon put in a few sly jokes, the only bits of his which are ever quoted now. There are some in Macaulay, not exactly side-splitters though. K.B. McFarlane, another of my tutors, said there was what he called `an important joke' carefully hidden in Maitland's Domesday Book and Beyond, but I never found it. Carlyle raises laughs with his sardonic snorts but he does not exactly tell jokes. Most historians now regard jokes as beneath their academic dignity. Their excuse is that funny stories are embroidered, and it is true that Leslie Stephen, after many years spent editing the Dictionary of National Biography, summed up: `No good story is ever wholly true.' Indeed, when I have investigated an apparently authentic tale, such as Harold Nicolson's marvellous story about Churchill and the Indecent Exposure of Sir Basil Thompson, I have usually found chronological discrepancies.

All the same, when I have verified a story, I find ways of working it in. I have followed this principle throughout my A History of the American People, which is finally delivered to the public next week. Why not? If you are giving readers 900 pages crammed with facts and dates and figures, they are entitled to a laugh or two. The Americans are a joke-making and joke-prone people, combining humour and humourlessness to an almost equal degree. This is illustrated by the Cabinet exchange I record between Theodore Roosevelt, my favourite president, and his grim, buttonedup navy secretary, William Moody. 'T.R.', who knew his Lewis Carroll, said, `Mr Secretary, what I tell you three times is true.' Whereupon the aggrieved man, bristling, replied, `Mr President, it would never for a moment have occurred to me to impugn your veracity.' Shortly afterwards, T.R. greeted Edith Wharton at a dinner with the words, `Well, I am glad to welcome to the White House someone to whom I can quote "The Hunting of the Snark" without being misunderstood.'

I am equally sure of my J.P. Morgan tale, because the lady concerned vouched for it. Morgan, who terrified people on account of his immense financial power and righteousness, suffered from rhinophyma, which made his nose large, red and swollen, an unjust and misleading blemish, for he was an abstemious man. Needless to say, it was the delight of cartoonists, one reason Morgan hated the press so much. But his entourage, naturally, never mentioned it. When Mrs Dwight Morrow, the pretty young wife of one of his partners, had to entertain him to tea, she instructed her four-year-old daughter, Euphemia, on no account to say anything about the nose. The little girl dutifully complied, and after she had sat on the great man's knee, eyes riveted on the proboscis but saying nothing, her mother thankfully dismissed her to the nursery. Then she started pouring and asked, `Mr Morgan, do you take nose in your tea?' I include the tale partly on its intrinsic merits, and partly because some of the material in my book was originally compiled for a course of lectures I gave at New York's Morgan Library, the magnificent institution, full of his treasures, which the Man with the Nose left to the nation. …

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