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

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