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Have I Already Told You . . . ?

Two common afflictions of old age – apart from creaky knees – are acute reminiscence and chronic anecdote. I suffer from both. As I get older I forget how many times I have told the same story to the same friends, and they, luckily, have forgotten how many times they have heard it before. I suppose this must be the special charm of gentlemen’s clubs: old men contentedly telling each other the same old tales.

Obviously, the telling of anecdotes can become a dangerous addiction; there’s the risk of becoming like the chap who has memorized a thousand jokes and relentlessly reels them off in the saloon bar. The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by the late James Sutherland and first published in 1975, is an honourable exception. I actually didn’t realize I owned this volume until I discovered it by chance in my bookshelf a few months ago. Perhaps it crept into my house one night and insinuated itself between the Chambers Dictionary of Literary Characters and Who’s Who in Shakespeare’s England. (There’s a good story behind that.)

Professor Sutherland’s collection (not to be confused with The New Oxford Dictionary of Literary Anecdotes, published in 2006, which has yet to invade my shelves) is never a bore. Even the subject index is a delight, covering such topics as Tactlessness, Sin, the usefulness of, Banalities, Disillusionment and Disinterment. You can see at once that this is the perfect book for dipping into, and if you feel that ‘dipping in’ is not quite a respectable activity, Professor Sutherland has the answer for you.

This, he writes, is a book ‘designed primarily for desultory reading’. Nobody, surely, can object to being considered a desultory reader. And the Oxford Book is full of desultory delights. It is arranged chronologically according to the literary figure who features in the anecdote, beginning with Caedmon, the Anglo-Saxon poet, and ending with Dylan Thomas. And there are extensive notes, giving the sources for everything.

Before discovering Professor Sutherland’s collection, my favourite literary anecdote was a spoof, composed by Walter de la Mare, which is brilliantly inconsequential.

My aged friend, Miss Wilkinson,
Whose mother was a Lambe,
Saw Wordsworth once, and Coleridge, too,
One morning in her pram.
Birdlike the bards stooped over her –
Like fledgling in a nest;
And Wordsworth said, ‘Thou harmless babe!’
And Coleridge was impressed.
The pretty thing gazed up and smiled,
And softly murmured ‘Coo!’
William was then aged sixty-four
And Samuel sixty-two.

In some collections of anecdotes it seems that almost every one ends with a noted wit making some dazzlingly clever remark. You suspect that these tales are like pieces of family silver, taken out from time to time, primped and given a good polish. They can also be suspiciously pithy. Professor Sutherland’s stories move at a more leisurely pace. They are mined from hundreds of (often half-forgotten) memoirs, biographies and letters, many of them about quite minor figures in literature, but all of them revealing in some way, even touching.

There is a delicious tale of the feud between the Irish writer George Moore and the three sisters who were his neighbours in Upper Ely Place, Dublin. It seems the ladies disapproved of his painting his front door green when all the others were white. (This has the flavour of a rather modern sort of neighbourly dispute.) They then bought a copy of his novel Esther Waters, tore it into small pieces, put them in an envelope, wrote ‘Too filthy to keep in the house’ on it and pushed it through his letterbox. Moore responded by making a habit of going out at eleven, twelve and one at night to rattle his stick along the Upper Ely Place railings in order to make the sisters’ dog bark. They retaliated by hiring an organ grinder to play under his window while he was writing.

(Sorry to interrupt, but have I ever told you about the time I went on a chauffeur-driven pub crawl with Kingsley Amis? Five times? Really? As many as that?)

The desultory reader will surely enjoy the image of Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, standing by a bridge in Oxford, holding his sides and laughing ‘most profusely’ as he listened to the bargemen raging and swearing at one another. This seems to have been his only pleasure. In his college rooms he was said to be ‘so mute and mopish’ that he was suspected of being suicidal.

A boatman also features in Lord Macaulay’s diary of a trip to Ireland in 1849. Four rowers were sent to meet his party when they reached the head of Upper Lake in Killarney. One of the four was particularly proud of having rowed Sir Walter Scott and the Irish writer Maria Edgeworth twenty-four years previously. It was, he said, compensation for missing a hanging which had taken place on the same day.

(Talking of boat trips, remind me to tell you about the time I was visiting Guyana and, on an outing in a dug-out canoe in some remote part of the country, the boat overturned and I was forced to swim to the nearest bank of the river, where I discovered I was paying an unplanned visit to Venezuela.)

I have to admit, however, that my arrival in Venezuela was less dramatic and emotional than scenes that took place in New York in 1841, when waiting crowds of Dickens fans, desperate to know the fate of the heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop, which first appeared in instalments, stormed the piers, calling out to approaching ships ‘Is Little Nell dead?’ Thomas Carlyle was utterly overcome by the death of Little Nell, while Daniel O’Connell, the Irish MP, reading The Old Curiosity Shop on a train, was reported to have burst into tears and thrown the book out of the carriage window.

In the course of desultory reading I found this charming story about the eighteenth-century Scottish journalist and poet Thomas Campbell. At a literary dinner party, he proposed a toast to Napoleon Bonaparte. As hostilities with France were then at their height, this did not go down well with the rest of the company and Campbell’s speech was nearly drowned out by the groans that greeted his words. He soldiered on:

Gentlemen, you must not mistake me. I admit that the French Emperor is a tyrant. I admit that he is a monster. I admit that he is a sworn foe of our nation, and, if you will, of the whole human race. But, gentlemen, we must be just to our great enemy. We must not forget that he once shot a bookseller.

This was, of course, warmly applauded by all the literary guests. (Professor Sutherland’s notes helpfully add that the bookseller – i.e. publisher – was the anti-French agitator Johann Philipp Palm of Nuremberg.)

Mention of parties, and the fact that Thomas Campbell was also a journalist, tempts me to tell you about the time I moved from my job at the Guardian and the guest of honour at my leaving party was Christine Keeler. But I will resist the temptation this time because I have just remembered an anecdote about Dylan Thomas, told by the novelist and BBC radio producer Rayner Heppenstall in his memoirs, and included in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. On a visit to Cornwall, Dylan and Caitlin Thomas and Rayner Heppenstall were going for a walk near Newlyn and, as they went along, Dylan was taking swigs from a flagon of some Penzance herbalist’s highly intoxicating concoction called ‘champagne wine tonic’.

Heppenstall recalls that Thomas was talking ‘copiously’. Then suddenly he stopped. ‘Somebody’s boring me,’ he said. ‘I think it’s me.’

The cue to end this piece.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 64 © Oliver Pritchett 2019

About the contributor

Oliver Pritchett must, at all costs, be dissuaded from writing his memoirs, after sixty years in journalism.

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