There’s a wooden ruler in our kitchen drawer that lists the Kings and Queens of England. On first glance, it seems a rather joyless kind of museum trip souvenir: a functional, varnished column of first names, Roman numerals and dates. But there is one touch that makes me very fond of it. Embossed on the end are the words: ‘British History Rulers’. Someone, somewhere in the company that manufactures such earthing rods for pocket money, saw the gleam of a compensatory joke, and decided to make it.
1066 and All That is a book that for me gleams so strongly with the same spirit of redress as to be a work of satirical genius. This is, I know, a little stronger than the usual estimate of Sellar and Yeatman’s ‘humour classic’. Its phrases are still commonly cited, and it appears never to have been out of print since first published in 1930. (I own two copies, one from 1936 – already the twenty-second edition – and another from 1994, reprinted twice in that year.) Yet literary criticism has paid it hardly any tributes at all. Presumably, this is because a) it contains cartoons and b) its preferred modus operandi is the pun. The pun is sometimes said to be the lowest form of wit. There is another way of looking at it, though – not as the lowest, but the most levelling.
A pun collapses a semantic hierarchy by forcing two incongruous ideas together, for example, monarchs and metrics. As such, it is a small but permanent form of Peasants’ Revolt. The comic genius of 1066 and All That is to make one-off schoolboy witticisms about official English history into a miniature world – a sceptred isle of twelve-inch Rulers, destined to become ‘top nation’. But its moral genius is to register the way in which this world of Great Men leaves the little men out. ‘For Pheasant read Peasant, throughout’, warns the well-known opening Erratum. This is followed by an even grislier error: ‘For saus
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