Wicked wit and brutal honesty

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I was there, I remember these things, the oral history has to be put straight. Listen to me.

THREE dons - from memory Maurice Bowra, Hugh Trevor- Roper and the formidable John Sparrow - were standing on the edge of Parson's Pleasure, the infamous riverbank bathing area at Oxford where senior members of the university were in the habit of taking the waters of the Cherwell in the most extreme state of undress possible.

It happened that the first punt-load of women ever to pass through this terra interdicta came upon our academic friends unexpectedly. Two of the estimable intellectuals took towels and slung them hurriedly round their waists in a state of unusual confusion. The third calmly placed his towel over his head.

When the craft had passed, the two turned to the one, crying, 'But, but] Why, dear boy, place your towel over your head?'

'Well, I don't know about you fellows,' said the logical third, 'But around Oxford I am usually recognised by my enormous propagator.'

THE OLD curmudgeon George Bernard Shaw was known for speaking his mind, no matter what discomfort it caused those around him. One evening at a very grand dinner a lady gushed: 'Oh, imagine if we had a child - with your brains and my beauty what a child it would be.'

Quick as a flash he replied: 'If you think I'm getting into bed with you you're stupider than you look.'

EVERY morning Randolph Churchill used to march in through the marbled hall and take advantage of the rather splendid facilities at the National Liberal Club on his way to work. Members of the club committee - his political opponents in the House - became increasingly annoyed with his cavalier use of their lavatories, and they instructed the doorman to confront the intruder, and prevent his entry in future.

The diligent yeoman indeed did so, checking his entry one morning with the words: 'Are you a member of this club, Sir?'

'Bog off,' said the irascible


THE CRUSTY old curmudgeon Sir Thomas Beecham was well known for his explosive temper, which was no respecter of person or place. One unfortunate lady cellist misfingered an arpeggio and received the stinging rebuke in front of all her colleagues in the orchestra: 'You have between your legs an instrument designed to give the greatest satisfaction to mankind and you can't play it halfway properly, you stupid little cat]'

THE OLD cynic George Bernard Shaw was at a particularly Bohemian dinner one eveninig when the subject of his succes de scandale Mrs Warren's Profession came up in conversation.

A lady said that she was simply unable to understand how a woman, even in a play, could do 'that sort of thing'. The playwright asked her if she would sleep with him for a million pounds. The lady said that she would be imprudent not to. Then, moving in for the kill, the old logic-chopper asked her if she would sleep with him for sixpence. The lady gasped, 'What do you think I am, Mr Shaw?' He drew himself up to his full height and replied, 'A prostitute.'

THE SOCIALITE and wit Margot Asquith was on a transatlantic journey sailing on the Queen Elizabeth. On the same ship was Jean Harlow, the film actress. She was very keen to strike up an acquaintance with the famous Margot Asquith and pursued her round the ship talking to her, even though they had not had the benefit of an introduction. Perhaps for this reason Miss Harlow mispronounced the name as Margotte - 'Margotte, do you think . . .' and 'Margotte, do you know . . .'

Eventually Margot Asquith could bear it no longer and turned on her tormentor with the urbane words: 'No, my dear, in Margot the 't' is silent. As in 'Bugger off'.'

THE acid-tongued playwright and entertainer Noel Coward was watching the state procession during the 1952 coronation. The Queen of Tonga - resplendent in her ceremonial robes - could not conceal the fact (nor did she want to) that she was more than 30st in weight. She was sharing a carriage with a palace equerry. A friend asked the bachelor knight, 'Who is that sitting with the Queen of Tonga?'

'You keep your sneaky peepers to yourself,' came the tart retort, 'That's my lunch.'