Miles Kington: The unbearable necessity of the superfluous

'Let me tell you about some of the people who work in this jazz club. Very odd, some of them...'
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In the last week or so, the poor British Isles have been bombarded by a violent blockbuster of a film called Pearl Harbor, which has been cruelly and viciously dropped on our people without warning. Still, looking on the bright side, it did remind me of a joke I once heard Ronnie Scott tell.

Brief explanatory note for anyone who has been stranded on a Pacific island since the War: Pearl Harbor was the American naval base attacked by the Japanese which brought the Americans into the Second World War. Ronnie Scott was the tenor saxophonist who founded Ronnie Scott's Club, and who made better announcements than almost any jazz musician who ever lived. The Second World War was the war in the 1940s which had such wonderful special effects that it provided material for all the war films made in the 1950s and 1960s. After that, they had the Vietnam War to make films about, but that war wasn't so good to film ­ no submarines, for a start, and the Americans lost it, which didn't help ­ so recently they have started filming the Second World War all over again.

Where was I ?

Oh, right. Ronnie Scott stood up one night and said, "Let me tell you about some of the people who work in this jazz club. Very odd, some of them. In the kitchen, for instance, we have a chef who is half black and half Japanese. Every 7 December he attacks Pearl Bailey..."

More explanatory notes: 7 December was the day in 1942 on which Pearl Harbor was attacked. Pearl Bailey was a wonderful black American singer, half jazz, half cabaret, whom I only discovered late in life after she had died, so I never got a chance to see her.

Anyway, the other day when we were staying with my brother-in-law in Buxton in Derbyshire, the film of Pearl Harbor came up in the conversation and I told them Ronnie Scott's joke.

"Nice to hear that one again," said my sister-in-law, Jackie. "It was one of my father's favourites."

"Did he go to Ronnie Scott's often, then?" I asked.

"Never in his life," she said. "But then, he was telling that joke long before Ronnie Scott had a club."

I was stunned. I had always believed in a childlike, innocent sort of way that Ronnie Scott wrote his own material. And now here was clear circumstantial evidence that he had borrowed it from the comedy pool. Did this mean that his other jokes were borrowed as well?

For instance, I remember Ronnie Scott was introducing the members of his band one night, and when bass player Ron Mathewson came on stage in mismatched lumberjack check coat and trousers, Ronnie paused for a moment in horror and then said: "Somewhere in London tonight there is a Ford Consul with no seat covers..."

Brilliant joke, I thought. But now I think: Was it his joke?

Ronnie once announced that the next tune was one he had written, and he had given it a rather special title: "Through the Sleeping Country the Midnight Express Train Roared, A Madman at the Controls And a Broken Bridge Ahead..." pause... "Blues".

Lovely timing, nice title. I hope it was his. After all, only last month I wrote a piece in which I tried to trace the origin of the remark: "Give me the luxuries of life and I can do without the necessities", and I concluded that it went back beyond Frank Lloyd Wright and Oscar Wilde and the usual suspects to the French writer Theophile Gautier, who had written in the 1830s: "Personally, I count myself among those for whom the superfluous is absolutely necessary..."

But recently I was given a Dictionary of French Quotations by my son-in-law Paul ( funny how in-laws have been upsetting my fixed ideas recently), and I was riffling through the most quotable bits of Voltaire when I came across this. "Le superflu, chose très nécessaire.". In other words, "That highly essential quality, the superfluous..."

So it wasn't Gautier who got there first after all! It was Voltaire, a hundred years earlier! And if it wasn't Voltaire, it was someone before him!

I think I'm beginning to see that it actually doesn't matter in the slightest who got there first. It really is just the way you tell them...