Paul Finch goes in search of a little light relief
The RIBA has published a perfectly decent ’election manifesto’. One would not expect any attempts at humour in such a document, nor in any of the motherhood-and-apple-pie aspirations of the main political parties; political interviews currently aren’t rib-ticklers. However, I had a good laugh listening to a Scot Nat failing to explain on BBC Radio 4 where £118 billion would come from to cover his plans to increase public spending on benefits of various sorts, no doubt disproportionately aimed at his native land.
Exchanges during general election campaigns tend towards the tetchy, even though politicians can be witty. There is plenty of evidence for this in the compendium published at the end of last year, edited by Matthew Parris, called Scorn (Profile Books).
An Australian premier, on being asked the best place from which to view Darwin in the Northern Territory, said: ‘From 20,000 feet, in a plane flying to Paris’. Even better was the remark of a New Zealand prime minister questioned about an exodus of his countrymen to Australia: ‘It will result in a higher average IQ in both countries.’ A deadly (and adaptable) response.
Politicians are generally far wittier in private than on the public stage. Some like to show off in Parliament, but are then accused of being lightweights (eg Boris Johnson), generally by people jealous of their natural ability. The classic example of the politician who was witty both in public and private was Lord St John of Fawsley, chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, who had served as a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Education Department until she tired of him calling her things like the ‘Leaderene’.
He was certainly able to conjure up witty remarks almost instantaneously. I recall a dinner marking an anniversary of Punch magazine, held in the library of the Reform Club, where St John was the guest speaker. A club servant arrived with a message for him: a three-line whip required his attendance at the House of Lords to take part in a debate about (I think) the Queen Mother’s annual stipend, a subject of great interest to him for some reason.
So he had to leave before delivering his speech. The host rose to explain the situation, and insisted on giving the guest of honour a very personal present to mark the occasion – a caricature by Trog, cartoonist of The Observer. St John accepted the gift, took a long look at it and said: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for this marvellous gift. It doesn’t do me justice but … (pause) … in this life, what we want is not justice, but mercy. Farewell!’
The wittiest RIBA president I can remember was Eric Lyons. He could be cutting, as when he said of Fred Pooley (another president): ‘Oh Fred. He is the master of the meaningless platitude.’ More good-natured was his comment on professional rules banning touting for business, which in those days meant that the golf club was a good place to meet potential clients informally. ‘At the golf club,’ declared Eric, ‘you aren’t allowed to solicit for business, but you can loiter with intent at the 19th.’
Famous architectural wits included the inimitable Cedric Price, whose bons mots were legion. Commenting on some rather nondescript entries in a competition to design new telephone kiosks, he remarked, ‘Thank goodness they’re getting rid of those red ones. They stood out a mile.’ Frequently quoted is his rehetorical inquiry: ‘If technology is the answer, what was the question?’
Price and the great critic Reyner Banham made a good double act, itself the subject of a witty deflating description of them by Mary Banham, as ‘two old farts trying to upstage each other.’ This description doesn’t apply to May and Corbyn. They are much less fun.