Malcolm Bradbury died the other day, aged 68. Actually, he was Sir
Malcolm. A knight. I didn’t know that. I knew almost nothing
about him, except that I liked him.
I liked him for one sentence I came across in a collection of modern
quotations: “It had always seemed to Louis that a fundamental
desire to take postal courses was being sublimated by other people
into sexual activity.” A man who could write that line was worth
knowing. It appeared in a book with the inspired title Eating
People Is Wrong — a sentiment I heartily endorse and can only admire
him for putting into words.
He also wrote: “I like the English. They have the most rigid
code of immorality in the world.” And this: “You Liberals
think that goats are just sheep from broken homes.” Don’t
you love him already?
The English speak their language so well. We Americans borrow it and
mess it up. We don’t know how to have fun with it. We think polish
is phony; it embarrasses us. For them polish is joy. We allow them
to practice it, because it’s their way; but we frown on it amongst
What could be more English than Gilbert and Sullivan? Gilbert’s
deadly wit could take the form of a one-sentence letter of complaint
to a railway company: “Sir, Sunday morning, though recurring
at regular and well foreseen intervals, always seems to take this railway
by surprise.” No volume of yelling could make the point so well.
Even English politicians can be witty. When the Earl of Sandwich predicted
that John Wilkes would die “either on the gallows or of a loathesome
disease,” Wilkes instantly retorted: “That depends, my
lord, whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.” Another
politician said of an opponent that he “has sat on the fence
so long that the iron has entered his soul.” Yet another quipped: “The
honorable gentleman is indebted to his memory for his jests, and to
his imagination for his facts.”
And of course Winston Churchill was renowned for his merciless epigrams.
He said of Ramsay MacDonald: “We know that he has, more than
any other man, the gift of compressing the largest amount of words
into the smallest amount of thought.” Of Clement Atlee: “He
is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.” He also called Atlee “a
modest little man with much to be modest about.”
F.E. Smith, a lawyer, was once scolded by a judge: “I have read
your case, Mr. Smith, and I am no wiser now than I was when I started.” Smith
replied politely: “Possibly not, my lord, but far better informed.”
Why hasn’t this country, which is not totally devoid of intelligence
and humor, cultivated wit as the English have? Ordinarily, we Americans
prize efficiency, and wit might be defined as efficiency of expression.
But we use the English language very inefficiently, wasting huge quantities
Our politicians are among the worst speakers of English on either
side of the Atlantic. Or Pacific, for that matter. Here is a sentence
Al Gore, alleged intellectual, once said: “In many ways, the act
of voting and having that vote counted is more important than who wins
the majority of the votes that are cast, because whoever wins, the
victor will know that the American people have spoken with a voice
made mighty by the whole of its integrity.” As for George W.
Bush, even the attempt to utter a simple sentence seemed to defeat
him: “I know how hard it is to put food on your family.”
Such verbal clumsiness is unworthy of any human being, let alone those
who are supposed to be exemplary leaders. What makes it really appalling
is that Gore went to Harvard and Bush to Yale. Maybe they don’t
teach remedial English in the Ivy League.
The habit of witty expression adds an element of fun to English public
life. American politics is distinguished by the sheer dreary banality
of its language. Our politicians feel no obligation to be succinct,
let alone delightful, in speech.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on November 30, 2000.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
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during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
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