BOOK REVIEW: Ever heard the one about Alfred and the cakes?

Histrionics: a treasury of Historical Anecdotes Geoffrey Regan Robson Books, £15.95

Share
Related Topics
Histrionics: a treasury of Historical Anecdotes Geoffrey Regan Robson Books, £15.95

One summer's day in 1789, Louis XVI went hunting, but he didn't bag much. Blithely unaware that the Bastille was stormed and his throne toppling, he wrote in his diary that night: "July 14: nothing."

That's the kind of story that Geoffrey Regan likes, and he's right. It's got the two essential elements of a good anecdote: it concerns a famous person and it is enjoyably ludicrous.

Here's another. It seems that Joseph Chamberlain's doctor told him that he smoked too much. Chamberlain's response was affable: "Perhaps I do, but then you must remember, I don't take any other exercise."

Happily, there are hundreds of stories like this, and Regan has collected most of them. To judge how familiar or true they are is rather tricky. So much depends on your age. Regan is lofty in his introduction about not trotting out those that are "dated and apocryphal", but it's a fair bet that most people under, say, 30 would not have heard about Robert the Bruce and the spider, nor about Richard the Lionheart and Saladin - which are two that he specifically rejects.

On the other hand, he includes several that surely everyone knows, like Ralegh spreading out his cloak for Queen Elizabeth and Stanley's greeting to Dr Livingstone. To point this out is not to grumble at their inclusion, merely to question his criteria. He says he "held out my hands to catch the thistledown of history", but what he did with it was to stuff it into his book at random, like a duvet with split seams.

To be fair, there are chapters, but they are haphazard. They are not remotely chronological, nor do they follow any other pattern. Sometimes two or three stories about the same person follow each other; sometimes they don't. Sometimes he has retold the stories himself; sometimes he has used an archaic translation. Sometimes he quotes almost verbatim from, say, John Aubrey or Samuel Pepys. Never does he identify his sources, which is maddening, although at least it means that when he gets things completely wrong he has only himself to blame.

Even more annoying is the fact that there is no index, so the reader must go trailing after scattered thistledown. This flagrant disorder prompts the odd notion that maybe this author, unlike most, only wanted his book to be picked up for two minutes at a time, and tossed aside in frustration.

It is a great pity, because there are some marvellous plums. Who cares whether or not the Lady with the Lamp actually kept a pet owl in her pocket - the juxtaposition of owl and Nightingale is irresistible.

Similarly, I was delighted to learn about the enormous nose of an elephantophile Tsar of Bulgaria, the massive King Augustus the Strong of Poland who snapped horseshoes for fun and sired 354 bastards, and the incredibly ugly Emperor Ferdinand I who enjoyed rolling around in wastepaper baskets.

Royalty is a richer vein than politics. Most of the political stories illustrate tedious one-upmanship and there is far too much Churchill, and too few eccentric peers.

If he runs to a second edition, Regan might like to include the occasion when the ancient Lord Brougham and Vaux visited Queen Victoria. She greeted him with unparalleled condescension as he sat in his carriage, but he was unimpressed. "Madam," he said, "the face is familiar but the name escapes me."

Some of these stories are really just jokes dignified by the dust of anecdotage. One of the oldest is given classical dignity by being attributed to King Archelaus of Macedon who was, can you believe it, the first man who, when asked by his barber how hewanted his hair cut, replied "in silence".

There is one that isn't remotely historical or classical, but you can see why he wanted to put it in. It's about a businessman giving away prizes at a girls' school who is stuck for something to say to the umpteenth girl, so he asks her what she plans todo when she leaves school. "Well", she says roguishly, "I had thought of going home."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
President Barack Obama walks with U.S. Secret Service agents to Air Force One at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Calif., May 8, 2014.  

Obama's Secret Service has become sloppy with its delusions of Hollywood grandeur

David Usborne
Chancellor George Osborne got a standing ovation from the Tories for a package of tough measures  

The Conservative party would have us believe that the poor deserve to be punished

Andreas Whittam Smith
Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties