Magazine article The Spectator

How to Be an Englishman

Magazine article The Spectator

How to Be an Englishman

Article excerpt


collected by Milton Shulman

Quartet, L12, pp. 276

As I read this book I found I kept turning to the photograph on the back page, to stare at those sleek, world-weary features. When a man produces what he calls 'A Compendium of the Witty, the Profound and the Absurd', then awards himself more entries than anyone else, it is hard not to feel some awe.

Oscar Wilde has seven. Dorothy Parker seven, Shakespeare two, but Milton Shulman has 15. This is such a wonderful joke it makes his book worth buying on these grounds alone, and I only wish he had gone further and put himself on every page. For the fact that some of his witticisms are not that witty makes their inclusion even funnier. 'It is difficult to commit suicide when you are in need of a pee.' I knew I was getting old when the Pope started looking young ' God spiked his copy', an epitaph on a journalist. I warmed to him among the fastidious droppers of bons mots, old Milt in there with the best of them, punching away. And when he is not quoting himself he is quoting what others told him. Orson Welles and Randolph Churchill make their utterances, 'as told to Milton Shulman'. And why not? Moses based his career on this.

But it gets funnier still. In his foreword Shulman confides that this collection had its origins in his attempt to turn himself' into an Englishman. A Canadian lawyer, he had already written that excellent book Defeat in the West, which he based on his interrogation, as an intelligence officer, of captured generals. This allowed him to write from a German point of view.

He had no such material to draw on in his next mutation, this time as a reporter on the London Evening Standard, which was why he began to compile a book of newspaper cuttings filed under Theatre, Politics, War, Women, so nothing about him would reveal an alien origin to his host community. He would have been better off consulting his own wife's Modern Manners, which would have told him how to address a divorced duchess and what to do after farting in polite society. This was of course unwritten when Childe Milton to the Dark Tower came, but it is sad that he has chosen not to include anything from Drusilla Beyfus's wonderful book.

How much he did learn from his research it is impossible to gauge, but the 15 entries suggest that what Isherwood called the habit of English middle-class modesty was not one. …

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