Evelyn, Noel and the wit that gathered dust

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The Independent Online

It was a collection of dinner party tales and witty anecdotes by the likes of Noel Coward, A A Milne and Sir Cecil Beaton, compiled by one of the foremost socialites of the day and designed to epitomise the best of post-War humour.

But the stories, commissioned by Countess Mountbatten of Burma and penned by the most celebrated figures of the 1950s, were destined never to be published because of the Countess's untimely death.

Now, Coward's tale of a boring dinner party conversation describing the lives of ants and Evelyn Waugh's explanation of a good joke, which have gathered dust for more than 50 years, have been unearthed and sold at auction by Bloomsbury.

The playwright Coward's following description of a tedious dinner party guest sold for £280.

"Some years ago, the last Mrs Patrick Campbell found herself at a dinner party placed next to a very boring man who talked exclusively about ants and their habits. He enlarged with ineffable tedium upon their brilliant team works. He explained that their military prowess was considerable and that they had divisions, regiments, squadrons, platoons etc. in fact a complete and highly efficient army. Mrs Campbell, bored to extinction, remarked tartly: 'No Navy I presume'."

The stories, from socialites and stage and screen stars, were designed to be part of a book to be sold at auction for charity. But after Countess Mountbatten's death, the manuscripts were abandoned.

The crime writer Agatha Christie recounted a failed attempt to encourage her hairdresser to become a fan of her fiction. In the story, she offers one of her books to her hairdresser, who six months later, had only got to the third chapter.

Author Evelyn Waugh wrote down his favourite joke, which fetched £300. He remarked: "All the best jokes are private and the best public joke I know is:

Pet shop assistant: 'Would you like it with DOG written on it?'

Woman (after cogitation): 'No thank you. My dog cannot read and my husband does not drink water'."

Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr told a story about his injured pride during a taxi ride at the end of the war, while on a break from active Service.

"I was deep in thought. Should I stay in the Navy and give up returning to films and public life? Then I became aware that my fellow passenger kept turning to stare at me. My spirits soared. I thought, There's proof that I'm not just another forgotten face. Not even the anonymity of naval uniform can defeat recognition," he said.

Moments later, he is crestfallen as he realises the taxi driver had mistaken him for "a fellow I used to know. Name of O'Connell."

Simon Luterbacher, head of manuscripts at Bloomsbury's said the stories offered a unique insight into the humour of the post-War British elite. "They are quite delightful, and as far as we know, they have never seen the light of day," she said.