Some other wits

Pride of place in our salute to the acerbic satirists of yesteryear goes to Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), whose ‘A Modest Proposal’ has the extended title ‘for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public’. We have long lamented the lack of a distinctive ironic script which would alert less aware readers to the kind of bitter humour Swift employs in this extract. Needless to say, some of his contemporaries took his proposal at face value.

I am assured by our merchants that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half-a-crown at most on the Exchange, which cannot turn to account either to the parents or the kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acqaintance in London that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males, which is more than we allow to sheep, black-cattle or swine, and my reason is that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. Tha the remaining hundred thousand may at a year old be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish and, seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

P.G. Wodehouse (1881–1975) is best known for his cast of upper-class twits and fearsome aunts, but in Roderick Spode, the Earl of Sidcup, he created an ‘amateur dictator’ who is clearly based on the English fascist Oswald Mosley. Spode has ‘a grip like the bite of a horse’, his appearance is ‘as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla and had changed its mind at the last moment’ and, in mimicry of Mosley’s Black Shirts, he leads the ludicrous Black Shorts. As the works of Wodehouse are still in copyright we can do no better than guide you towards his novel ‘The Code of the Worsters’ and bring you this brief excerpt.

‘The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?” ’

Another of our favourite ‘modern’ wits restricted, for copyright reasons, to only a brief representation here is J.B. Morton (1893–1979) who for more than 50 years wrote the brilliant Beachcomber column for the Daily Express newspaper. He specialized in high-flown nonsense, but sometimes his zany ramblings took on a harder edge.

Answers to correspondents

Edna: No, Edna; it is only when the poor gamble that gambling is wrong.

Mabel: No, Mabel; it is only when the poor drink that drinking is wrong.

Daisy: No, Daisy; it is only when the poor avoid going to school that avoiding going to school is wrong.

Clara: No, Clara; it is only when the poor have large families that having large families is wrong.

Birdie: No, Birdie; it is only when the poor make a disturbance in public that making a disturbance in public is wrong.

Flo: Yes, Flo; the poor are always wrong.

Charles Dickens (1812–1870) was a great humorist and a social critic, too. The two roles come together in this scene from Hard Times (the chapter is entitled ‘Murdering the Innocents’) in which the school board superintendent Thomas Gradgrind reveals his chilling educational philosophy in the classroom. He is aided and abetted by two school guardians, one of whom insists ‘What I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.’ The other perplexes the children by asking them a question about wallpaper.

‘I’ll explain to you then,’ said the gentleman, after another and a dismal pause, ‘why you wouldn’t paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality – in fact? Do you?’

‘Yes, sir!’ from one half. ‘No sir!’ from the other.

‘Of course no,’ said the gentleman, with an indignant look at the wrong half. ‘Why, then, you are not to have anywhere what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste is only another name for Fact.’

Thomas Gradgrind nodded his approbation.

‘This is a new principle, a discovery, a great discovery,’ said the gentleman.

‘Now I’ll try you again. Suppose you were going to carpet a room. Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?’

There being a general conviction by this time that ‘No, sir!’ was always the right answer to the gentleman, the chorus of No was very strong. Only a few feeble stragglers said Yes; among them Sissy Jupe.

‘Girl number twenty,’ said the gentleman, smiling in the calm strength of knowledge.

Sissy blushed and stood up.

‘So you would carpet your room – or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman,and had a husband – with representations of flowers, would you?’ said the gentleman. ‘Why would you?’

‘If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers,’ returned the girl.

‘And is that why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?’

‘It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty, and pleasant, and I would fancy –’

‘Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,’ cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. ‘That’s it! You are never to fancy.’

‘You are not Cecilia Jupp,’ Thomas Gradgrind solemnly repeated, ‘to do anything of that kind.’

‘Fact, fact, fact!‘ said the gentleman. And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.

‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether.’

The outstanding American ironist and satirist was Mark Twain (1835–1910). In Huckleberry Finn he tackles attitudes to racism in the South through Huck’s rescuing of his aunt’s negro slave Jim. His upbringing tells him that slavery is justified in a Christian society, whereas his own human feeling instructs him otherwise.

Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave, and so I’d better write a letter to Tom Sawyer, and tell him to tell Miss Watson where he was. But I soon give up that notion, for two things: she’d be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she’d sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn’t, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they’d make Jim feel it all the time and so he’d feel ornery and disgraced. And then think of me! It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freeom; and if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That’s just the way; a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thhinks as long as he can hide it, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there‘s One that’s always on the look-out, and ain‘t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself, by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying: ‘There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you, there, that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.’

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Not from me, either. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away in side of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie – and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie – I found that out.

Evelyn Waugh (1903–1966) was brilliantly waspish and he delighted to offend. In his journalism novel Scoop his naïve reporter William Boot visits the Ishmaelia legation in London to get a visitor’s visa. The consul-general instructs him in global politics. 

‘The patriotic cause in Ishmaelia,’ he said, ‘is the cause of the coloured man and of the proletariat throughout the world. The Ishmaelite worker is threatened by corrupt and foreign coalition of capitalistic exploiters, priests and imperialists. As that great negro Karl Marx has so nobly written . . .’ He talked for about twenty minutes. The black-backed, pink palmed, fin-like hands beneath the violet cuffs flapped and slapped. ‘Who built the Pyramids?’ he asked. ‘Who invented the circulation of the blood? . . . Africa for the African worker, Europe for the African worker, Asia, Oceania, America, Arctic and Antarctic for the African worker.’

At length he paused and wiped the line of froth from his lips.

‘I came about a visa,’ said William diffidently.

‘Oh,’ said the consul-general, turning on the radio once more. ‘There’s fifty pounds deposit and a form to fill in.’

William declared that he had not been imprisoned, that he was not suffering from any contagious or outrageous disease, that he was not seeking employment in Ishmaelia or the overthrown of its political institutions; paid his deposit and was rewarded with a rubber stamp on the first page of his new passport.

‘I hope you have a pleasant trip,’ said the consul-general. ‘I’m told it’s very interesting country.’

‘But aren’t you an Ishmaelite?’

Me? Certainly not. I’m a graduate of the Baptist College of Antigua. But the cause of the Ishmaelite worker is the cause of the negro worker of the world.’

‘Yes,’ said William. ‘Yes. I suppose it is. Thank you very much.’

‘Who discovered America?’ demanded the consul-general to his retreating back, in tones that rang high above the sound of the wireless concert. ‘Who won the Great War?’

Hitler recruits George Osborne: a short youtube film imagining Nazi Leader Adolf Hitler’s response to Tory party policies.