I first encountered the work of Stephen Potter in a TV sketch show that conflated the great comedy quartet of his ‘Upmanship’ books: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, Lifemanship, One-Upmanship and Supermanship, published by Rupert Hart-Davis between the late Forties and late Fifties. The TV series began in 1974, when I was 12, by which time Potter had been dead for five years. Having recently discovered A. G. Macdonell’s England, Their England, I was just learning that sustained drollery is better than a series of gags, and these programmes seemed another lesson to that effect.
On taking the books out of York Library (you won’t find Potter in many public libraries today) I was struck by the combination of well-mannered elegance in the writing, and the brutality of the cod social advice given: the section in Lifemanship starkly headed ‘How to Make People Feel Awkward about Religion’, or a passage in the same book about how to trip up a man who really knows what he’s talking about. The example is given of an ‘expert’ annoyingly holding the floor after a fortnight in Florence: ‘And I was glad to see with my own eyes that this Left-Wing Catholicism is definitely on the increase in Tuscany’, to which Potter urges the Lifeman to counter, ‘Yes, but not in the South.’ This struck me as not only amusing but also practically useful – a remark that really would check the speaker, and at no cost to the Lifeman, it being completely unanswerable. When Potter added that ‘Yes, but not in the South’ would do for any argument about any place, I believed him, and I still do.
I have always felt a kinship with Potter. By the age of 12 I’d worked out that the sole point of social interaction was to make the other party feel slightly inferior, and he was the first person I encountered bold enough to say so. There was one mystery about him, however. Whereas my own northern, upper-wo
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