One of the literary forms that has always given me most pleasure, in between the serious stuff, has been the clerihew, named after its inventor Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875–1956). Bentley was chief leader writer for the Daily Telegraph from 1912 to 1934. In 1905, a decade before he produced another of his inventions, the modern detective novel, with Trent’s Last Case, he published a slim volume entitled Biography for Beginners, which opens, under the heading ‘Introductory Remarks’, with this four-liner:
The Art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about Maps,
But Biography is about Chaps.
The clerihew, as this form came to be known, is about some famous figure of history or public life, with its first line consisting of that person’s name:
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, ‘I am going to dine with some men.
If anybody calls
Say I am designing St Paul’s.’
I was introduced to the form by my first serious girlfriend and her father, who was a devotee of G. K. Chesterton – the connection will become clear – and immediately fell for the irreverent attitude towards the world that it opened up (this was, after all, the Satirical Sixties). My girlfriend, her father and uncle and I obsessively tried to outdo each other in making up clerihews about everyone we could think of, past or present, famous or family. We would accept only what we judged to be true Bentleyan examples.
Biography for Beginners contained forty clerihews, each accompanied by a drawing by G. K. Chesterton, a lifelong friend of Bentley’s. It caught on among – in the author’s words of mild surprise – ‘connoisseurs of idiocy’, with five printings in a relatively short time, and more collections followed in 1929 and 1939. Then in 1951 Clerihews Complete, with over a hundred clerihews, but in fact lacking thirty-four of Bentley’s oeuvre, was published
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