Friday, August 15, 2003

The Potemkin Museum of Antique Humour

Bentley, N (England (1907 - 1978(?)), Young Elizabethan Era): Clerihew & Vignette

Description: Whether cartoonist and writer Nicolas Bentley (a non-smoking anti-anti-vivisectionist) properly belongs in a museum of antique humour is open to question. Although consistently amusing the quality that stands out most in Bentley's work is his wit, which is of the very driest kind. I'm not sure that Bentley set out to be funny; rather he produced the sort of sharp, insightful satire which often just happens to be funny.

Two works are presented in their entirety: first a clerihew Cecil B. de Mille and secondly a vignette Historic Moment which tells the story of a collision of minds between a stuffy Cambridge Don and "a healthy-looking girl called Myrtle, who in some strange way managed to give an impression of chic and yet remained unquestionably English."
Both pieces are from How Can You Bear to Be Human, which you might be able to track down, second hand, in Penguin. It's worth it, if only for Historic Moment which shows how a genuinely intelligent writer can take down intellectual snobbery without resorting to sneering anti-intellectualism.

Finally a couple of minor notes. Firstly a heartfelt plea from the curator that no-one dobs him in to the Berne Convention Copyright cops: I considered presenting Historic Moment in an excerpted form, but there was no way to do so without losing the richness of the characterisation or the brilliance of the ending. Just how rich this seemingly sparse piece is in fine detail became very clear after I decided to bite the bullet and transcribe it complete, rather than presenting an arbitrary selection of highlights. It's one continuous highlight from beginning to end. Secondly the colloquial sense of "rooted" in England in the 1950s has very little in common with the Australian colloquial usage of "rooted" but I admit that I nearly had a bit of a guffaw when I got to it during the transcription.


Cecil B. de Mille

Cecil B. de Mille,
Rather against his will,
Was persuaded to leave Moses
Out of The Wars of the Roses.


Historic Moment

We were sitting so that we faced each other across the table. He was a Cambridge man, name of Cedric Cudham, a minor don. He had a florid face and a hairy neck and his eyes were small and myopic. He was full of history and had that air of invincible superiority that is so often a sign of a second class intellect. At forty-odd he still retained some of the deliberate gaucheries of the undergraduate - there was a bright bandanna sticking out of the pocket of his dinner jacket - only now they had become the deliberate eccentricities of a conceited chump. he spoke quickly and authoritatively in a harsh voice that cut through conversation like a buzz-saw. He was every inch a don, of the crass, self-opinionated type, and with each mouthful of the souffle that he shovelled in (his table manners were none to good) I longed to kick his teeth in. He had a good strong set and I could imagine a heavy briar clamped between them as he sprawled in his airless rooms scribbling away at some erudite paper on the Diet of Worms.

They had put him next to a healthy-looking girl called Myrtle, who in some strange way managed to give an impression of chic and yet remained unquestionably English. With what intention they had been paired off it was hard to say. Clearly he hadn't much interest in women of later date than Madame de Maintenon or with less politicalacument than she must have had. Myrtle looked as though her political acumen began and ended with the knowledge that Daddy always votes Conservative.

Having listened with a slightly dazed expression to a short lecture on Napoleon's strategy at Austerlitz, Myrtle deemed it the right moment to shove in her tiny oar.

'I thought Marlon Brando was awfully like him in Desiree, didn't you?'

'Who is Marlon Brando?'

It was just a little too brusque. A lesser fool than Cedric would have seen how far calculated indifference towards a girl like Myrtle could be carried without giving her the needle. This time she felt it.

'Oh Mr Cudham surely you must have heard of Marlon Brando?'

'Must I?'

'Oh well, I mean - well one must be rather an oyster in a cloister not too.'

She knew exactly how to swing it and did so with a sweet reasonableness that took the blunt edge off but made the point a little sharper.

'He was absolutely Napoleon,' she said. 'I mean, he really was, really. Oh, he was wonderful!'

'You are alluding now to Napoleon?'

Myrtle - and I don't wonder - seemed rooted for the moment by this shaft of academic irony.

'Not to Napoleon. The only thing I know about him is that ludicrous hat.'

'He did possess other attributes of course,' said Cedric, dry as ginger ale, though not as sparkling.

'Yes, but actually this film's all about his sex life.'

'I'm afraid that I don't often go to Hollywood films,' Cedric said. His tone put Hollywood, and in fact the whole industry, exactly where it belonged - beyond the pale.

'Oh do tell us, what do you go to?'

Myrtle, in spite of appearances, seemed to be nobody's fool, but she knew somebody else's when she saw one, and at twenty paces a blind man could have spotted Cedric as being Acton's or Macaulay's or in fact the dumb disciple of any historical sage who had been dead long enough not too offer any competition.

'You adhere to the concept of perpetual motion, Miss Hesketh, like a good many of your generation, if I may say so.'

Myrtle rolled a round and startled eye in my direction.

'But do say so. Or does that mean something I oughtn't to know about?'

'The desire for movement per se, or shall I say the desire for what they call in the United States "going places", doesn't necessarily exert an equal attraction on succeeding generations. You "go" to the cinema; I "go" - at least in so far as I may be said to "go" anywhere - in pursuit of the University beagles.'

He gave a broad, bland, and rather fleeting smile to show that (a) as she wasn't worth more than a moment's consideration he bore her no rancour, and (b) the subject was now closed.

'Is that fun?' the flat innocency of Myrtle's tone seemed to imply that of all sports none sounded more of a deadly bore than beagling.

'Indeed it is. And it is also a considerable test of stamina.'

'You should come with me some time, Cudham' I said, 'on the Monte Carlo rally. That's a pretty good test of stamina. You'd enjoy it.'

He turned his tight-lipped smile on me and his little eyes glittered behind their heavy lenses.

'Would I? I doubt whether you would, though.'

He was wrong there. I knew what those ice-covered bends are like going over the Col du Fau. In a low-slung sports job like the one I drove in '54, and given a patch of mist, with him on the outside edge it would have been money for old rope.

'What's wrong with the cinema, though, Mr Cudham?' Myrtle wasn't going to let him get away with it.

'What indeed?'

'Well, for my money,' I said, 'there's Hollywood.'

Myrtle looked faintly disappointed.

'Well, yes, but I'm against vesting authority in the lower apes.'

'Our friend has put it in a nutshell,' Cedric said, smug as a bishop. I didn't care for our being classed as friends, but I let it ride.

'Well I don't care what you say,' Myrtle said brightly, 'I think Desiree's a jolly good film and I adore Marlon Brando.'

'Chacon a son gout,' said Cedric with a hint of a shrug, just to show there was some Gallic blood as well as soda water in his veins, at the same time watching me to see whether I appreciated how delicate was his irony.

'Well what's your taste like then, Mr Cudham?'

'In what?'

'I mean in film stars.'

'Well, I've told you, I seldom go -'

'Oh, yes. But I bet I know exactly the type of woman who attracts you, Mr Cudham.'

He tried a deprecating snigger which didn't quite come off.

'Then I congratulate you on your percipience,' he said.

We seemed to be swinging well outside his conversational orbit, which I've no doubt left the relationship of the sexes where it was when Herbert Spencer fell over it. But the man's vanity was too strong for him; he stuck his neck out a little further.

'For example?'

'Oh, well, someone like Marilyn Monroe probably,' said Myrtle.

Cedric sniggered again. Then the prig in him, never very far from the surface, came to the top and leant over.

'I don't think Miss Monroe and I would have much to say to each other.'

'That would be one time, Mr Cudham,' said Myrtle, 'when what you have to say wouldn't matter.'


Next Exhibit.

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