The French Joke

Kurt Tucholsky (1890–1935) was a German satirist whose writings were very popular during the Weimar Republic. The phrase often attributed to Joseph Stalin that “the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic” is, in fact, found in Tucholsky’s work, Lerne lachen ohne zu weinen (Learn to Laugh without Crying), which was published in 1932. We are delighted to bring this fresh translation into English of an excerpt from this work, where the original version of this famous phrase is found—more importantly as an example of French wit.


Summer has brought a hail of anecdotal books to the French station kiosks: New editions, new publications. There are: T. S. V. P. by Bienstock and Curnonsky (Crès, 21 rue Hautefeuille, Paris); Le Wagon des Fumeurs by the same authors, published by the same publisher; Joyeuses Anecdotes by Max Frantel (Editions Montaigne, Impasse de Conti 2, Paris VI); Histoires Marseillaises, collected by Edouard Ramond (Les Editions de France, 20 Avenue Rapp, Paris); by the same publishing house, Histoires Gasconnes, collected by Edouard Dulac; Histoires de Vacannes, collected by Leon Treich (Librairie Gallimard, 3 rue de Grenelle, Paris VI). Whew!

The title of the first book, T. S. V. P. is the same as the inscription on some doorknobs to which no handles are attached, and it means in full: “Tournez, s’il vous plaît!” Well, let’s turn this knob for once.

French wit and French jokes are not always synonymous. It is stronger than them, because wit in stage dialogue, in the salon conversation, in the “mot” that even the little man often throws into the street noise with lightning speed and with the utmost repartee, this wit is not always caught in jokes.

That is why the French funny papers are not exactly hilarious—the level of the “Assiette au Beurre” has never been reached again, and you have to pick out the good ones from a whole jumble of jokes. This refers to “Le Rire,” to “Canard Enchaîné,” to “Le Merle Blanc,” different in value, unequal.

The collections cited above are much better, especially T. S. V. P. and Le Wagon des Fumeurs. So, what do the French jokes of today look like?

First of all, you have to take off your hat often enough, because so many old acquaintances pass by. For the still considerable remainder, the obstacle for the foreign reader is that he does not have the factual prerequisites of wit in flesh and blood. A joke that first has to be explained is no longer a joke; and it is not enough to know those premises—you have to feel them.

The specific characteristics of French wit are its lightness, its delicacy, its elegance. For example, the resigning minister writes to the Secretary of State for Posts and Telegraphs an hour after his fall: “Dear colleague! I do not know if you still remember me…” The hand gesture with which a phrase is uttered is quite casual. They are talking about the horrors of war. Then a diplomat from the Quai d’Orsay says: “The war? I can’t find it so terrible! The death of one person: that’s a catastrophe. One hundred thousand dead: that’s a statistic!”

The language of diplomats is French, and the definition of the profession goes like this: “A diplomat, my dear child, is a man who knows a woman’s date of birth and has forgotten her age!” And so many things sound softer and more delicate in this language than elsewhere. An old lady receives a visit from one of her friends, who climbs the four flights of stairs to her apartment with great difficulty. Still breathing hard, he says in greeting: “Four flights of stairs are no small matter, madam!” “Dear friend,” says the lady, “that’s the only way I have left to make men’s hearts beat faster!”

This language has the finest gears with which it seizes everything that comes too close. Album entry by Jean Cocteau: “Italians and Germans love it when music is made. The French have nothing against it.”

And even a mild rebuke takes on an endearing melody when it is uttered in the way that Curé did when he encountered a lady at the altar of his church who was decollete to the point of impossibility. “If you only wanted to dip two fingers in, madam,” he said, “you needn’t have undressed!”

Even if the joke becomes a little delicate, it remains bearable in this form. The conductor to the passenger, who is excitedly walking around the small station: “Are you looking for the restaurant?” “No, on the contrary,” says the traveler.

This example shows how concisely this language can sometimes shed light on a confusing situation: a conversation through the door. The male voice: “Is Mr. Paul there?” The woman’s voice from inside: “No, he’s not here. You can’t come in, I’m in bed.” The male voice: “There’s no harm in that; why don’t you open up a bit?” The woman’s voice: “But you can’t—someone’s already with me!”

Of course, there are many of these French jokes that are completely untranslatable. For example, the saying of the elderly woman who was reproached for the excessive simplicity of her toilet. “A mon âge on ne s’habille plus, on se couvre.” Or that enchantingly beautiful saying by a Marseille painter: “Quand on a mangé de l’ail (garlic), il ne faut parler qu’à la troisième personne.”

I spoke earlier of the many old acquaintances one encounters in these collections of anecdotes: “The right barber” by Chamisso, who would also have cut off the neck of Hebel’s choleric customer for a whisker, is there, and there are not only folk jokes that wander through all literature, but even a story as seemingly linguistically limited as that of the lady on the phone who spells the word torch: “F as in Fioline, A as in Ankpir, C as in for example…” even to this story we find the French analogy. It is about the Hôtel de l’Ourcq. “What kind of hotel?” – “L’Ourcq! L’Ourcq!

O as in Auguste
U as in Ugène (Eugene)
R as in Ernest
C as in Serge
and Q as in you.”

Now, French jokes have been stamped out for the whole world, and here, to my great regret, I have to put the brakes on, because the moment you translate these daring jokes, they usually become unbearably coarse. But I did find one little story that is possible in German. Frida, go out for a long while!

A big wedding in the Madeleine in Paris. Outside the church door, the usual crowd of gawkers: midinettes, little clerks, street urchins, curious people of all kinds. The wedding procession! He: very solemn, serious, of the best, the very best, but already the very, very best age, obviously very rich. She …a general ah! A delightful little brunette, very piquant, with full lips, spirited, a charming creature. The train stops for a moment. The gentlemen are photographed. When the bride and groom start moving again, the bridal bouquet comes off and falls onto the carpet. A little midinette, who has noticed this, rushes in obligingly, picks up the flowers and hands them to the young bride. She can’t help but whisper very quickly and very quietly: “I didn’t make this much fuss at my premiere …” The two look at each other for a moment and are companions for a moment. Then the bride whispers back: “Me neither!”

Frida, you can come back in. Next time your uncle will tell you more.


French jokes have many more fixed characters than ours. First and foremost, there is the “cocu” (cuckold).

The word is untranslatable. “Hahnrei” (capon) is a word for which even the all-knowing Doctor Wasserzieher gives no explanation in his Ableitenden Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache and which a sane person would probably only utter if asked what “cocu” means in German. And “betrayed husband” is a crawling turtle to a flight of swallows. (The fact that the word, the term and the joke figure completely distort the extraordinarily bourgeois French woman should only be mentioned in passing).

Of course, French wit also has its professional jokes. Inevitably the doctors. Doctor Z. meets one of his patients on the Pont des Arts. A brief conversation. “Well, how are you …?” “But, dear friend,” says the doctor, “you’re going to get a bad cold; why don’t you button up your coat?” “You’re actually right,” said the other. “And what else… Have you heard the story of the…” They chat for a while, the doctor and his patient, then they go their separate ways. After three days, the doctor sends the following statement:

One consultation: 20 francs

The bridge patient also sends one:

Doctor Z. told a joke20 Francs
Waited until he understood it20 Francs
Total: 40 Francs
Of which for the consultation20 Francs
My remaining claim to Doctor Z20 Francs

Regional jokes play a very important role in France, and it is above all the south, Marseille and Gascony, that offer the main tribute. Anyone who has had the opportunity to hear the “accent du midi,” the “assent,” which is horrible to German ears, will understand that there is a wealth of humor to be found in French dialect. What’s more, the people from the south are considered to be colossal braggarts and, in the exuberance of their temperament, are likely to say quite cheerful things—in any case, the chain of these stories never ends. The local tone is, of course, lost on us. “Last winter,” says the man from Marseille, who is always called Marius or Olivier, “it snowed here and more than a meter of snow fell.” “A meter wide?” someone asks.

“Est-ce que tu vois la mouche au sommet de la Tour d’Eiffel?” (Can you see the fly on top of the Eiffel Tower?) asks a Gascon from Marseille. “Non! Mais je l’entends!” (No! But I hear it) he replies. There’s a lot of peasant cunning in these stories.

One plant that does not want to thrive in French is the Jewish joke. They exist; there is a Collection d’Histoires Juives, published by the Nouvelle Revue Française; they are hardly missing from any collection. But they are not prepared according to the rules; there is no such thing as Yiddish in English, in French; and the Alsatian accent, which incidentally is dwindling in many cases among the younger generation, is a poor substitute.

But the French don’t need to borrow from foreigners, they have enough good jokes of their own. The children’s mouths are particularly funny. “Grandpa, do the lions go to heaven?” “No, my child.” “Grandpa, are the priests going to heaven?” “Yes, of course, my child.” “Grandpa, but what if the lion eats a priest?”

The following story, on the other hand, has to be translated into Berlinese to get the full flavor. There is a young lawyer who has been sitting in his new office for two weeks waiting for his first client. Finally, finally, the doorbell rings and the girl answers. The lawyer hears a man’s voice and says to the girl without listening to her: “Keep the gentleman waiting!” Because he owes it to himself for reasons of prestige. After ten minutes he rings the bell, grabs the telephone, lets the visitor enter and surprises himself in an urgent and highly important conversation. He gestures into the receiver: “Of course, Mr. Senior Government Councillor! I can’t promise that, Mr. Senior Government Councillor! I’m so busy… I can’t close a deal for my client for less than nine hundred thousand marks! Certainly. So goodbye then, Mr. Senior Government Councillor!” – “What do you want?” he says to the man. The visitor replies: “I’m coming because of the telephone. It’s broken.”

This little story is also very French, in which the little six-year-old daughter of a femme entretenue picks up the word “demi-mondaine” and now asks her mom: “Mom, when I grow up, can I become a demi-mondaine too?” – “Yes,” says her mother, “if you’re good!”

There are countless jokes about the “coup de fusil” in restaurants. In a very elegant restaurant in Vichy, a customer complains about the bill. “They wrote me up five francs for a cookie? But I didn’t have any!” “Excuse me,” says the waiter, “may I ask for the bill? I’ll fix it right away.” The improved bill reads: Cookie, four francs.

There is something almost completely missing from French jokes. This is the eccentric exaggeration that we find in American and Irish jokes. If you find something like this in a collection of anecdotes, you can swear that the story has been translated from English. Such is the story of the world-famous dwarf Tom Puce (Thumb), who one day happened to be staying in the same hotel in London as the famous French singer Lablache, a giant about two meters tall. There was a curious London lady who wanted to see the small world attraction, asked for the room number at the hotel, got the wrong door and now stood stunned in front of this Mount Everest. “I… I wanted to see the dwarf Tom Puce!” “That’s me, ma’am!” – “You? You are the dwarf Tom Puce?” “Only in the theater, madam; at home I make myself comfortable!”

This conversation seems to be a child of both worlds, the French and the English: The ticket inspector: “You have a third-class ticket, dear lady, and this here is first class!” “Excuse me,” says the lady, “I thought I was in second class.”

So. Now there are many beautiful stories which I have not told because of their inappropriateness. But that should be enough now. And if I have only enriched the repertoire of a few presenters with these lines, I feel amply rewarded for all my work.

Featured: Portrait de l’artiste sous les traits d’un moqueur (Portrait of the artist as a mocker), by Joseph Ducreux; painted ca. 1793.

“My Humor comes from Pain and Love”

The accomplished humorist, Eduardo Aguirre Romero, author of the magnificent books, inter alia, Cine para caminar (Walking Cinema), Blues de Cervantes (Cervantes Blues); Cervantes, enigma del humor (Cervantes, The Enigma of Humor) prologued by the writer Víctor Fuentes, has just published his masterpiece, Entrevista a Cervantes (Interview with Cervantes), which is dedicated “with gratitude and affection to the memory of the architect Jesús Martínez del Cerro (1948—2022), builder of the two prototypes of the machine to detect false readers of Don Quixote.”

Don Quixote opened the way to a more humanitarian comicality”

In this context, it should be emphasized that Eduardo Aguirre Romero, journalist at the Diario de León, offered a reading workshop in the León City Hall, entitled, “Don Quixote for the elderly,” and he promotes the language of sweet Spain, by way of his first-rate works, in which, to better understand the life and works of the “King of Spanish Literature, he gives special emphasis to the humor of Cervantes, a subject of capital importance but very little studied by scholars.

But, before continuing, it is important to add a word about Cervantes, enigma del humor (2017), in which Aguirre Romero (who is originally from Madrid and now based in León since 1985) clearly deduces that in Don Quixote, humor rhymes with both love and pain and states that Cervantes’ humor is a multifaceted one, as “it does not evade your reality; it helps you to interpret it” (Cervantes, enigma del humor).

The insightful wit of Aguirre Romero accurately detects that “in these uncertain times, Miguel de Cervantes still has a lot of light to offer us.” As well, he meditates on the origin of humor and comes to the conclusion that “the best thing would be to ask Cervantes himself” (Cervantes, enigma del humor).

Consequently, in his Entrevista a Cervantes, “a work in progress,” the Cervantes-enthusiast from León converses with the genius of Spanish literature, not only because the immortal Miguel is still alive but also because the interviewer wishes to give the biography of the glorious man of La Mancha, in order to learn about the trajectory of his enigmatic life. Therefore, Aguirre Romero brings Cervantes to life, in flesh and blood, gives him a voice with all the freedom of expression and opinion; and without disguising the truth, even if it is unpleasant, he gives a biographical sketch of the famous Alcalá native.

Regarding his economic situation, Miguel maintains that “I had good times… but in my last years, if it wasn’t for the Count of Lemos and the Archbishop of Toledo, I would end up in a corner with a monkey and a goat. Isn’t that poverty? I had it tattooed on me since childhood” (Cervantes, enigma del humor, 48).

“All that can be forgiven, and more. When the time comes”

When asked about the words of the Spanish writer, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), who belonged to the “Generation of ’98″—”’Don Quixote is immensely superior to Cervantes,’ what do you think?” The peerless novelist answers that “He is worth more than me… and more than almost all of us, because he does not condense. And Sancho also condenses us. But read, read, for sure there is more material to cut” (Cervantes, enigma del humor, 50).

Referring to Avellaneda, Aguirre Romero asks, “Can that also be forgiven, that in addition to murdering the book, he defamed you in the prologue? He even bragged about wanting to take away your profit, besides making certain allusions to… your horns.” Miguel replies that “all that can be forgiven, and more. When the time comes” (Cervantes, enigma del humor, 57).

“Thank you, O Lord, for you have revealed these things to the simple and you have hidden them from the wise.”

Similarly, the journalist sheds light on the doubts surrounding the character of Cervantes, who does not mince words and confesses that “I was wounded in my self-love, many times. Battered, too. I was even tempted to give up… but I was never rancorous. Nor vindictive, except for a few blows in this prologue or in that sonnet, because we are not of the same mind” (Entrevista, 58); and further on he declares that “one can be very intelligent and not understand anything. In fact, it is often those who understand the least. There is a very beautiful phrase of Jesus: ‘Thank you, Lord, for you have revealed these things to the simple and hidden them from the wise'” (Entrevista, 64-65).

The humorist Aguirre Romero notes that “Cervantes was the first to combine with genius the dramatic and the comic; that laughter was more than laughter… and no one before had so united comedy with depth and compassionate tenderness, though Cervantes himself often ignores such potential… and to perceive it, he had to fall in love with his characters, to feel responsible for them… There is not a comic Quixote and a serious Quixote. It is a single book. That is the marvelous multifaceted condition of Cervantes’ humor. A single humor, with numerous registers” (Entrevista, 34-35).

However, the key question that the author poses to Cervantes is:

Aguirre: “Where does Cervantes’ humor come from? You were poor in fits and spurts, you were crippled in a battle, you were imprisoned for five years, you were jailed several times for alleged embezzlement, you got along badly with your daughter… in old age you had to ask for help to survive… With that biographical background, where did you get the vital forces to write the universal masterpiece of humor?”

Cervantes: “Precisely from there… from pain.”

Aguirre: “Does his humor come from pain?”

Cervantes: “From pain and love. When he had the worst time… he laughed. And not only that, he was capable of making others laugh… Only fools need to smile when things go well for them. [If they steal your humor, they will have defeated you (Entrevista, 65).

“My humor comes from pain and love”

In all honesty, Entrevista a Cervantes is a well of wisdom, where humor and truth emerge, which characterize the writing of Aguirre Romero, who always follows the proverb of Cebantes, that brilliant soldier of the Elite Special Forces of the Spanish Tercios Viejos: “Be brief in your reasoning, because no one is pleased if it is long;” and he hides “an ace up his sleeve: there is also pain and love hidden behind what—a priori—only seemed funny” (Entrevista, 34).

Before concluding, it is my great honor to congratulate not only Eduardo for his excellent work that carries much of him within it, but also for his proclamation of vital joy—and that of the believer—in a period of great economic concerns due to the crisis, from which he has not been spared, but also to Professor María Fernández Ferreiro, the editor of Entrevista a Cervantes, for her excellent series of books that she has gathered, and the extraordinary Grupo de Estudios Cervantinos (GREC) at the University of Vigo.

Without the slightest shadow of a doubt, this masterpiece of our admirable Eduardo Aguirre Romero, “dedicated to society hit by a long economic crisis and a crisis of values” (Entrevista, 37), which fills the heart with greater joy, has managed to combine the funny with the serious. The characters and themes are identified with those of Cervantes’ works, while the entire work stems from a healthy and wise humor, which captures the soul of the reader, and makes us better people.

All this proves that Entrevista a Cervantes is a flagship and this book belongs to the whole world. Congratulations!

Laus in excelsis Deo.

Krzysztof Sliwa is a professor, writer for Galatea, a journal of the Sociedad Cervantina de Esquivias, Spain, and a specialist in the life and works of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and the Spanish Golden Age Literature, all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles and reviews in English, German, Spanish and Polish, and is the Corresponding Member of the Royal Academy of Cordoba and Toledo.

Featured: Miguel de Cervantes, Gustave Doré; published in 1863.

The Anglican Angle: The Revd. Septimus Hazard on Appetite, Temptation, Mastication and S-x before Marriage

In this monthly address to the Postil Magazine, I will skate on thin ice and dwell for a little while on the wise invocation in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.” Temptation is a universal sentiment. There’s even a rather fine American soul group named after it. So, to quote one of their hits, “Get ready” for my sermon (what a swinging rector I am!). I myself confess I feel a pang of temptation as I pass any attractive patisserie and ogle the cream-cakes, eclairs and of course the strawberry tarts. “Naughty but nice” was the clever slogan of the English Dairy Board in the 1970s, urging us on to lick whipped cream. I don’t mind if I do!

Others, however, are led into temptation in the slightly lower, indeed baser bodily organs. The ice is now very thin, I am sailing close to the wind and the time is nigh to come clean. I confess that even a chaste soul such as myself feels a veritable pitter-patter at the thought of the Spice Girls who we see in their pomp below—the stately Posh, that scrumptious bombshell Baby Spice; now, where are my Yardley smelling salts? That’s better! Thank heaven the girls are now spoken for and married, leading I naturally hope, good Christian lives as wives and mothers.

● ● ●

It was the great Cardinal Hume—there is some good within the Roman fold I hasten to add—who advised his readers to “bite your tongue and say thanks be to God!” when you are saddened, maddened or both. For my part, I have bitten mine, indeed risked chewing it to shreds, when led into temptation—but thank goodness, that vital organ is still intact and in a position to lick and then masticate soft eclairs. I know I am in good company—St. Jerome, famously, went a lot further than me and retreated into the wilderness with his cuddly lion companion when tempted by the Spice Girls of his day, though they were scantily clad dancers rather than those superb singers.

A very great cleric of the 19th century, the Revd. F.W. Farrar, addressed the theme of bodily temptation and growing self-fulfilment, shall we say, with candour, beauty and integrity in the headmaster’s sermon in his classic novel Eric, or Little by Little (1858). It behooves me to quote him at length:

Kibroth-Hattaavah! Many and many a young Englishman has perished there! Many and many a happy English boy, the jewel of his mother’s heart—brave and beautiful and strong—lies buried there. Very pale their shadows rise before us—the shadows of our young brothers who have sinned and suffered. From the sea and the sod, from foreign graves and English churchyards, they start up and throng around us in the paleness of their fall. May every schoolboy who reads this page be warned by the waving of their wasted hands, from that burning marle of passion where they found nothing but shame and ruin, polluted affections, and an early grave.

● ● ●

Wonderful stuff, putting Hazard to shame! Though Farrar piles on the agony, he strangely failed to mention the blindness that is a well-known symptom of Kibroth-Hattaavah Syndrome. Yet his point is well made. What are the deterrents to contracting this hideous condition and resting prematurely in the churchyard of his vivid description? I would recommend a lot of good, hard praying; listening to classical music rather than to the Spice Girls; and something that my parishioner Leslie Broadbridge would recommend, dipping into your father’s back numbers of Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanac, studying the utterly absorbing County Championship scorecards of the 1950s in the happy knowledge that Surrey usually won. I am open to alternative suggestions. Digging the Revd Hazard’s rose garden is a further, excellent remedy—any lucky lad in this position will earn a shining shilling and a toffee-apple for his pains, and that’s a promise!

Maintaining this risky theme, I will move on to something almost equally disturbing. Let me introduce it by recalling my own, impious youth. As a 10- or 11-year-old, having been inducted, in the classroom of my private school I hasten to add, in what was then nicely termed “the Facts of Life,” I used to get a rise out of asking conservative Radlett folk of a certain age: “What is your stand on sex before marriage?” It never failed to produce mirth for those who could stand their ground or, still more appealing to the devilish young Hazard, adult embarrassment, prevarication and even momentary rage. I was, I now realise, revelling in the permissive Zeitgeist of the 1960s. Blessed with liberal parents, I was never spanked or worse for such outrageousness.

So, what is my stand on S & M, as it were, now that I myself have attained the maturity of the adults that I had teased? “You young whippersnapper!” would probably be my chaffing response, but how should I guide my slightly older parishioners, or indeed my Confirmation class who are less confrontational than Master Hazard but equally intellectually curious? I would stress, of course, the significance of continence and restraint, and the sanctity and beauty of matrimonial bonding and attendant family life as a reward for this.

But suppose a Confirmation student, not content with this, pressed the issue? “Young Ambrose, you don’t give up easily,” I would chide gently, “But since you raise the question, intercourse prior to matrimony could well produce a bastard!” Cue for Farmer Brown’s gormless son to chip in “But Sir, my Dad was married for five years before I was born!” “Brown Minor, being a bastard is not necessarily predicated on one’s birth or even marital status!” Oh my gosh, I hope he won’t tell Pater: in retrospect I was shrewd to use complex words like “predicated” and even “marital status.” With any luck, these will probably trip up Master Brown—he certainly appeared rather baffled. A close shave, and it only goes to show how posh, affected prose is a wonderful weapon of defence against simpletons. That excellent Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg knows this too, and what an admirable successor to Boris he would make…

Well, I think I have handled three hot potatoes with some aplomb: it’s surely time for a certain Reverend Gentleman to enjoy his first gin and tonic of the day…

Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971. Any perceived resemblance between him and the Revd. Septimus Hazard is but a figment of the reader’s imagination.

Featured: “The Vicar of Wakefield: The Vicar Preaching to the Prisoners,” by Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1817.

The Anglican Angle: Meet the Revd. Septimus Hazard, MA

Dr. Mark Stocker, our former art history joke writer, now turned learned musicologist, is a good friend of an ageing Anglican rector, the Revd. Septimus Hazard, MA (Oxon). For the last forty years the latter has occupied, not without incident, the well-endowed Eton College living of St. Swithin’s, Prawnsby, Norfolk.

The rector was chuffed at being invited to share his innermost thoughts and feelings about the world in this magazine, which he proposes to do in the next three issues. Our editor is like clay in the hands of the Revd. and had no option but to comply with these plans. Any donations to St. Swithin’s spire fund may be sent directly to Dr. Stocker and no questions will be asked. God bless you all!

A Few Thoughts for my Brethren, Sisteren and Otheren…

Hello Peoples!

OMG (to quote the youth of today), that was the greeting from my happy-clappy friend Greg, from that rather dreadful, cheapskate Church of Jesus down the road, I do so apologise.

The other day, good people, I was deeply impressed by my fellow divine who chose a most apposite Lesson for Boris Johnson to read at the Abbey to mark the Jubilee of our glorious Queen and Monarch, Defender of the Faith to boot: “Whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely… think on these things!” I cannot hope to improve on this brilliant summation of the British Empire’s prime minister and his most excellent Conservative and Unionist government. Boris is beautifully pure and, perhaps certain homo sapiens of the cloth might add, lovely (they have mysterious, nay, queer ways, but I fear I digress!) The Tory party at prayer, it has been wisely observed of the Anglican fold.

Talking of prayer, I recently conducted a harvest festival service for a congregation predominantly comprising market gardeners. “Lettuce spray!” I commanded—and you know what, Farmer Brown rudely interjected “I did that months ago, you fool!” Rather better received was a hymn I chose for a congregation of physicists, mostly I fear agnostics or heaven forbid, atheists. They nonetheless responded with gusto to the hymn “Immortal, invisible, God only wise/In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes…” Choosing the right hymn to match the occasion is of course very important, particularly as I need to humour my very “woke” bishop, the Rt. Rev. Timothy Venables, BA (Hull). God help us.

Therefore, when I was conducting an ecumenical service the other day with our Quaker friends, I decided in the last minute not to go ahead with “Fight the good fight with all thy might.” My parishioner, Mrs. Broadbridge (bless!) tells me I am a sensitive vicar, but far be it for me…

Back to those hymns. A while ago, I conducted a service for a congregation of what Bishop Timothy would a little nauseatingly deem “Otherly abled.” I therefore decided that “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus” was not the happiest of choices, in the unlikely event of the Saviour making a guest appearance and performing those rather splendid miracles of His. This is St. Swithin’s Church, not bleeding Lourdes (excuse my French!) Likewise, “You’ll never walk alone” would seem to be stating the obvious to these good folk, they hardly need reminding of their sad condition. What with Covid smiting our congregation, “Breathe on me, breath of God” is particularly inadvisable, especially as He resides in one or two of my holier, unvaccinated communicants. Well, they at least seem convinced He does. One cannot be too careful, nor indeed too prayerful. On that lyrical note, I will take my leave, and it’s high time to enjoy my first dry sherry of the day.

Yr humble servant,
The Revd Septimus Hazard, MA (Oxon), (He/Hymn)
St. Swithin’s Church,
Prawnsby, Norfolk

The defrocked Rector of Stiffkey, Harold Davidson, with Toto the lion, 1937. Revd. Hazard claims “Toto is positively benign compared with my bishop!”

As the Revd.’s piece went to press, the dramatic news of Boris Johnson’s resignation burst forth on the wireless waves. The editor, out of courtesy and sympathy, telephoned Our Friend of the Cloth, and alas found him very much out of sorts. He should of course spare the reader, but sounds of belching, weeping and what sounded like a crystal decanter being smashed greeted him…

“I know I shouldn’t swear, but my foughts… thoughts are well-nigh unprintable. It’s bloody, simply bloody awful—excuse my French, as dear Mrs. Broadbridge would say. Boris was… is… perfection. [sobs] The men who ditched him are beneath contempt. I need to find a good name for them [hic]. Ah yes, the great John Steinbeck came up with a juicy insult many years ago—spawn of cuttlefish—that’s them! Snakes! Bastards! Oh my gosh, my long-suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Griffin, will have a helluva, sorry, hideous mess to clear up here. I need another drink, old man,
do please excuse me…”

(line goes dead).

Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.

Featured: “The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch,” by Henry Raeburn; painted 1790s.

Fun in May: Poetry and Hilarity

No doubt, in common with other Postil Magazine contributors, I get sacks of fan mail from grateful and admiring readers. One particular epistle deeply moved me. It read thus:

Dear Dr Stocker,

I am a 6th former at an exclusive private girls’ school in the Cotswolds and I hope to read history of art at Oxford or Cambridge. My teacher, Miss Trevelyan, told me to read your Postil Magazine articles to improve my own writing. I think they are excellent. My problem is that the Pop singers you write about are often old or dead, and my parents say they are even before THEIR time. I am a real fan, however, of your poetry and jokes. Could you please write something special in this line? I would be so thrilled.

Thank you so much in anticipation,


Stephanie (age 16)

P.S. I do think you’re rather dishy!


Well, how could I possibly turn down a request like that? To please Stephanie, and many thousands more (not all of them nicely behaved girls of 16), I supply herewith two poems and four jokes.

The first poem is written in honour of my good friend Michael, an art historian, who recently attained a certain age.

The second one, I believe, will touch the hearts of everyone accustomed to condo or apartment living, and alludes to our sometimes faulty communal garage auto door, which opens to correctly swiped cars and drivers for precisely 90 seconds.

The jokes, I think, speak for themselves. I trust Stephanie and the rest of you will respond with gales of laughter and near ecstasy. If you don’t, contact the editor.


To Michael at 80

For four score years thou’st nobly trod this earth
A man possessed with decency and worth,
Who solemnly regards it as his duty
To say sagacious things on art and beauty.

You’re blessed with a shrewd aesthetic eye;
Of serious mien – and yet of humour dry
At a pinch that verges on the sly!

Emotions, no, you don’t betray too much
Yet a cunning feline, he can touch
Your heart, just like a much-loved wife;
Salutations on your well-lived life!

Ode to a Garage Automatic Door

Coming from a lowly station
I approach’d in trepidation
Our reconditioned portcullis.
Would I find garagèd bliss?
        Or would access be denied?
        “Open, Sesame!” I cried…
At one fell swipe of card—it oped!
Had it not, could I have coped?
And then, count 90—would it close?
It did! The air smells like a rose!

And now for those jokes…

I was listening to KD Laing, as one does, and suddenly a great name for a meat eaters’ buffet restaurant occurred to me: Constant Carving.

An uncharacteristically clumsy painting by a great American realist caused him to be nicknamed “ClodHopper.”

The famous and very savvy New Zealand artist Dick Frizzell proudly showed me his latest painting:
“Well, Dick, me old son, there’s only one word for that.”
[I am prone to talk like that, I’m very irritating]
“Pray what is that, Dr. Stocker?”

The woke art historian’s dilemma:
Hogarth had a much-loved pug called Trump.
Should the artist’s statue be toppled?

Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.

Featured image: “Picasso’s Tomato,” by Dick Frizzell; painted in 2022.

Is Academic Satire Possible Anymore?

Amis, Bradbury and Lodge, very different as they were, all now seem like products of other, gentler ages, ones in which authors sought to offer satire with the shaming that hypocrisy deserves, while finding humour, and very much of it, in the varied adventures of protagonists and others. And so still with the more mordant Coming from Behind (1983) as Howard Jacobson lay bare Wrottesley Poly and some of its members. The black-comedy A Very Peculiar Practice (1986, 1988), became very much more biting in its second series as the American Vice-Chancellor took over and students were removed, with the last episode entitled “Death Of A University.” The writer, Andrew Davies, had lectured at Coventry College of Education and then the University of Warwick. Here, however, it was commercialisation, notably globalisation, that brought a traditional university to its abrupt close.

That topic could still be handled in fiction, but how can writers cope with the current evil confluence of the toxic effluvia of faddish management with woke-ish staff and students.

Set in fictional Pembroke University, the American television series The Chair (2021) sought with some success to handle issues of diversity, gender and behaviour, but stayed off a number of the delights of the modern university, such as the sheer aggression that explode these envelopes, the stress affecting so many staff and students, and the particular delectations of fighting the world’s battles on campuses let alone the “trans” and others policy of supposed aggressions.

In Britain, America and elsewhere, each week brings a new case of intimidation of staff, with administrators, “colleagues,” and students all joining to deal out the shit. Sorry if that offends you, but only excremental imagery on the eighteenth-century pattern captures the poisoning of the culture as well as the destruction of so many individual careers, and the deadening, nervous pall of concern that pervades universities, rather like a toxic smog.

ABBA in “Waterloo” proposed that “the history book on the shelf is always repeating itself,” but that is certainly not the case for modern academe in Britain or America. The present situation is more pervasive, invasive and brutal than the Cold War in these countries.

So, what becomes of academic satire? One approach is simply to print some of the nonsense emanating from universities. It is more ridiculous than most satirists could devise, and frees the latter from the danger of vilification through invention. Particular humour of a mordant type attaches to the idiocies surrounding decolonising curricula and enforcing authoritarian notions of equality and diversity. Racism directed against whites underlies some of the discussion of white “privilege.”

What is less clear to outsiders is how this world impacts on individuals; indeed how it provokes the full range of human action from bravery to cowardice via complicity. How shocked can you be when you encounter the latter on the part of those you like and/or admire? So universities as setting for tragedy in any fictional form.

But that can overlap with satire: academics and students ignoring refugees from horrible wars, notably at present in Ethiopia so that they can intone against Rhodes’ statue. Far better to hurl opprobrium at white on black violence in the past than to respond to black-on-black violence.

Tragedy and satire. That, indeed, is the present situation. False values can always attract the satirist. The comic element is very rare and even then very black, if I am allowed with my name to say that, but satire does not have to be funny. What it should do is hit the target, and universities provide so very many.

Jeremy Black is a British historian, and a prolific author. His most recent books include, Military Strategy: A Global History, War and Its Causes, Introduction to Global Military History: 1775 to the Present Day, and Imperial Legacies. The British Empire Around the World.

Featured image: “A young man examined for entrance to university,” an etching by K. Bretherton, after Henry William Bunbury, published May 23, 1799.

On Humour And Satire

This excerpt is from Essays in Satire, by Ronald A. Knox, which was published in 1930. Monsignor Knox (888-1957) was a widely respected English Catholic theologian, writer, thinker, and radio broadcaster. Among his many contributions to knowledge and the world of ideas is his translation of the entire Bible (known as the Knox Bible). He also famously wrote crime fiction and began the Sherlockian tradition of the “Grand Game,” with the publication of, “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” in 1911, when he was 23 years old and still a student at Oxford, and which we have also now published.

Famously, on January 16th, 1926, he presented Broadcasting the Barricades, which we have republished, which was a “live” radio coverage of a supposed a revolution in London, with an attack on the Houses of Parliament the destruction of Big Ben, and the hanging of the Minister of Traffic as well as other mayhe, m. It set off a nation-wide panic. This broadcast became the model for Orson Wells’ no-less famous “War of the Worlds.”

Whoever shall tum up in a modern encyclopaedia the article on hummingbirds—whether from a disinterested curiosity about these brightly-coloured creatures, or from the more commonplace motive of identifying a clue in a crossword—will find a curious surprise awaiting him at the end of it. He will find that the succeeding paragraph deals with the geological formation known as a humus; or if his encyclopaedia be somewhat more exhaustive, with the quaintly-named genius of Humperdinck. What will excite his speculation is, of course, the fact that no attempt is made by his author to deal with humour.

Humour, for the encyclopaedist, is non-existent; and that means that no book has ever been written on the subject of humour; else the ingenious Caledonian who retails culture to us at the rate of five guineas a column would inevitably have boiled it down for us ere this. The great history of Humour in three volumes, dedicated by permission to the Bishop of Much Wenlock, still remains to be written. And that fact, in its turn, is doubly significant. It means, in the first place, that humour, in our sense of the word, is a relatively modem phenomenon; the idea of submitting it to exhaustive analysis did not, for example, present itself to the patient genius of John Stuart Mill. And at the same time it is an uncommonly awkward and elusive subject to tackle, or why have we no up-to-date guide to it from the hand of Mr. Arnold Bennett?

Assuredly this neglect is not due to any want of intrinsic importance. For humour, frown upon it as you will, is nothing less than a fresh window of the soul. Through that window we see, not indeed a different world, but the familiar world of our experience distorted as if by the magic of some tricksy sprite. It is a plate-glass window, which turns all our earnest, toiling fellow-mortals into figures of fun. If a man awoke to it of a sudden, it would be an enlightenment of his vision no less real than if a man who had hitherto seen life only in black and grey should be suddenly gifted with the experience of colour. More, even, than this; the sense of humour is a man’s inseparable playmate, allowing him, for better or worse, no solitude anywhere. In crowded railway-carriages, in the lonely watches of a sleepless night, even in the dentist’s chair, the sense of humour is at your side, full of elfin suggestions. Do you go to Church? He will patter up the aisle alongside of you, never more at home, never more alert, than when the spacious silences of worship and the solemn purple of prelates enjoins reverence. I could become lyrical, if I had time, over the sense of humour, what it does for men and how it undoes them, what comfort lies in its companionship, and what menace. Enough to say that if I had the writing of an encyclopaedia the humming-birds should be made to look foolish.

Humour has been treated, perhaps, twice in literature; once in the preface to Meredith’s Egoist, and once in Mr. Chesterton’s book, The Napoleon of Netting Hill. What it is still remains a mystery. Easy enough to distinguish it from its neighbours in the scale of values: with wit, for example, it has nothing to do. For wit is first and last a matter of expression. Latin, of all languages, is the best vehicle of wit, the worst of humour. You cannot think a witty thought, even, without thinking in words. But humour can be wordless; there are thoughts that lie too deep for laughter itself.

In this essay I mean to treat humour as it compares with and contrasts with satire, a more delicate distinction. But first let us make an attempt, Aristotle-wise, to pin down the thing itself with some random stab of definition. Let us say that the sphere of humour is, predominantly, Man and his activities, considered in circumstances so incongruous, so unexpectedly incongruous, as to detract from their human dignity. Thus, the prime source of humour is a madman or a drunkard; either of these wears the semblance of a man without enjoying the full use of that rational faculty which is man’s definition. A foreigner, too, is always funny: he dresses, but does not dress right; makes sounds, but not the right sounds. A man falling down on a frosty day is funny, because he has unexpectedly abandoned that upright walk which is man’s glory as a biped. All these things are funny, of course, only from a certain angle; not, for example, from the angle of ninety degrees, which is described by the man who falls down. But amusement is habitually derived from such situations; and in each case it is a human victim that is demanded for the sacrifice.

It is possible, in the mythological manner to substitute an animal victim, but only if the animal be falsely invested with the attributes of humanity. There is nothing at all funny about a horse falling down. A monkey making faces, a cat at play, amuse us only because we feign to ourselves that the brute is rational; to that fiction we are accustomed from childhood. Only Man has dignity; only man, therefore, can be funny. Whether there could have been humour even in human fortunes but for the Fall of Adam is a problem which might profitably have been discussed by St. Thomas in his Summa Theologiae, but was omitted for lack of space.

The question is raised (as the same author would say) whether humour is in its origins indecent. And at first sight it would appear yes. For the philosopher says that the ludicrous is a division of the disgraceful. And the gods in Homer laugh at the predicament of Ares and Aphrodite in the recital of the bard Demodocus. But on second thoughts it is to be reflected that the song of Demodocus is, by common consent of the critics, a late interpolation in Homer; and the first mention of laughter in the classics is rather the occasion on which the gods laughed to see the lame Hephaestus panting as he limped up and down the hall. Once more, a lame man is funny because he enjoys, like the rest of us, powers of locomotion, but employs them wrong. His gait is incongruous—not unexpectedly so, indeed, for the gods had witnessed this farce daily for centuries; but the gods were children, and the simplest farces always have the best run.

No doubt the psycho-analysts will want us to believe that all humour has its origin in indecency, and, for aught I know, that whenever we laugh we are unconsciously thinking of something obscene. But, in fact, the obscene, as its name implies, is an illegitimate effect of humour. There is nothing incongruous in the existence of sex and the other animal functions; the incongruity lies merely in the fact of mentioning them. It is not human dignity that is infringed in such cases, but a human convention of secrecy. The Stock Exchange joke, like most operations on the Stock Exchange, is essentially artificial; it does not touch the real values of things at all. In all the generalizations which follow it must be understood that the humour of indecency is being left out of account.

Yet there is truth in the philosopher’s assertion that the ludicrous is a division of the disgraceful, in this sense, that in the long run every joke makes a fool, of somebody; it must have, as I say, a human victim. This fact is obscured by the frequency with which jokes, especially modern jokes, are directed against their own authors. The man who makes faces to amuse a child is, objectively, making a fool of himself; and that whole genre of literary humour of which Happy Thoughts, The Diary of a Nobody, and the Eliza books are the best-known examples, depends entirely on the fact that the author is making a fool of himself. In all humour there is loss of dignity somewhere, virtue has gone out of somebody. For there is no inherent humour in things; wherever there is a joke it is Man, the half-angel, the half-beast, who is somehow at the bottom of it. I am insisting upon this point because, on a careless analysis, one might be disposed to imagine that the essence of satire is to be a joke directed against somebody. That definition, clearly, will be inadequate, if our present analysis of humour in general be accepted.

I have said that humour is, for the most part, a modem phenomenon. It would involve a very long argument, and some very far-reaching considerations, if we attempted to prove this thesis of humour as a fact in life. Let us be more modest, and be content for the present to say that the humorous in literature is for the most part a modem phenomenon.

Let us go back to our starting-point, and imagine one pursuing his researches about humming-birds into the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1797. He skims through a long article on Mr. David Hume, faced by an attractive but wholly unreliable portrait of the hippopotamus. Under “Humming-bird” he will only read the words “See Trochilus.” But immediately following, he will find the greater part of a column under the title “Humour.” Most of it deals with the jargon of a psychology now obsolete, and perhaps fanciful, though not more fanciful, I think, than the psychological jargon of our own day. But at the end he will find some valuable words on humour as it is contrasted with wit. “Wit expresses something that is more designed, concerted, regular, and artificial; humour, something that is more wild, loose, extravagant, and fantastical; something which comes upon a man by fits, which he can neither command nor restrain, and which is not perfectly consistent with true politeness. Humour, it has been said, is often more diverting than wit; yet a man of wit is as much above a man of humour, as a gentleman is above a buffoon; a buffoon, however, will often divert more than a gentleman. The Duke of Buckingham, however, makes humour to be all in all,” and so on.

“Not perfectly consistent with true politeness”—oh, admirable faith of the eighteenth century, even in its decline! “The Duke of Buckingham, however—a significant exception. It seems possible that the reign of the Merry Monarch saw a false dawn of the sense of humour. If so, it was smothered for a full century afterwards by an overpowering incubus of whiggery. The French Revolution had come and gone, and yet humour was for the age of Burke “not perfectly consistent with true politeness.”

One is tempted, as I say, to maintain that the passing of the eighteenth century is an era in human history altogether, since with the nineteenth century humour, as an attitude towards life, begins. The tone of Disraeli about politics, the tone of Richard Hurrell Froude about all the external part of religion, seems to me quite inconceivable in any earlier age. But let us confine ourselves to literature, and say that humour as a force in literature is struggling towards its birth in Jane Austen, and hardly achieves its full stature till Calverley. I know that there are obvious exceptions. There is humour in Aristophanes and in Petronius; there is humour in Shakespeare, though not as much of it as one would expect; humour in Sterne, too, and in Sheridan. But if you set out to mention the great names of antiquity which are naturally connected with humorous writing, you will find that they are all the names of satirists. Aristophanes in great part, Lucian, Juvenal, Martial, Blessed Thomas More, Cervantes, Rabelais, Butler, Molière, La Fontaine, Swift—humour and satire are, before the nineteenth century, almost interchangeable terms. Humour in art had begun in the eighteenth century, but it had begun with Hogarth! Put a volume by Barrie or Milne into the hands of Edmund Burke—could he have begun to understand it?

You can corroborate the fact of this growth in humour by a complementary fact about our modem age, the decline of naïveté. If you come to think of it, the best laughs you will get out of the old classics are laughs which the author never meant to put there. Of all the ancients, none can be so amusing as Herodotus, but none, surely, had less sense of humour. It is a rare grace, like all the gratiae gratis datae, this humour of the naif. Yet it reaches its climax on the very threshold of the nineteenth century; next to Herodotus, surely, comes James Boswell. Since the dawn of nineteenth century humour, you will find unconscious humour only in bad writers, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and the rest. Humour kills the naif, nor could any great writer of today recapture, if he would, Boswell’s splendid unselfconsciousness.

Under correction, then, I am maintaining that literature before the nineteenth century has no conscious humour apart from satire. I must now pass on to an impression which all of us have, but an impression so presumptuous that we seldom have the courage to put it into words. It is this, that humour, apart from satire, belongs to the English-speaking peoples alone. I say, the English-speaking peoples, a cumbrous and an unreal division of mankind. But, thank God, you cannot bring any preposterous ethnographical fictions in here. Not even Houston Stewart Chamberlain ever ventured to congratulate the Germans on their sense of humour; not even the Dean of St. Paul’s will dare to tell us that the sense of humour is Nordic. The facts speak for themselves. Satire still flourishes on the Continent; Anatole France was no unworthy citizen of the country of Voltaire. There is satire, too, among the Northern peoples; I believe that if I expressed my private opinion as to who was the world’s greatest satirist I should reply, Hans Andersen. Only in spots, of course; but the man who wrote the Ugly Duckling and the Darning Needle and the Story of the Emperor’s New Clothes seems to me to have a finer sense of the intrinsic ludicrousness of mankind than Swift himself.

Satire is international, as it is of all ages; but where shall humour be found, apart from satire, on the Continent of Europe? Who, unless he were a laugher at the malicious or the obscene, ever picked up the translation of a foreign book in search of a good laugh? Who ever found a good joke in a Continental illustrated paper? Cleverness of drawing abounds, but the captions beneath the drawings are infantile. I have seen a Swedish illustrated supplement, and I do not believe there was a single item in it which would have been accepted by Comic Cuts. I am told that the humorous drama of modem France forms a complete exception to this statement of the facts. I am content to believe it; there must, of course, be exceptions. I put forward the rule as a rule.

Some, no doubt, on a hasty analysis, would limit the field still further by saying that humour is purely English. And it would be easy to defend this contention by pointing to the fact that the English enjoy their joke very largely at the expense of their neighbours. Nothing belongs more decisively to the English-speaking world than the anecdote. We are for ever telling stories, and how many of those stories are about a Scot (we call it a Scotchman), an Irishman, a Jew, or an American? But this, if our definition of humour was a sound one, is in the nature of the case. A foreigner is funny, because he is like ourselves only different. A Scot or an Irishman is funny to the Englishman because he is almost exactly like himself, only slightly different. He talks English as his native tongue, only with an incorrect accent; what could possibly be funnier? A Scot is more funny than a Frenchman just as a monkey is more amusing than a dog; he is nearer the real thing.

But, in fact, all such judgments have been distorted beyond recognition by national hypocrisy. It is the English tradition that the Irish are a nation brimming over with humour, quite incapable of taking anything seriously. Irish people are in the habit of saying things which English people think funny. Irish people do not think them funny in the least. It follows, from the English point of view, that Ireland is a nation of incorrigible humorists, all quite incapable of governing themselves.

The Scot, on the other hand, has an unfortunate habit of governing the English, and the English, out of revenge, have invented the theory that the Scot has no sense of humour. The Scot cannot have any sense of humour, because he is very careful about money, and drinks whisky where ordinary people drink beer. All the stories told against the Scottish nation are, I am told, invented in Aberdeen, and I partly believe it. There is (if a denationalized Ulsterman like myself may make the criticism) a pawkiness about all the stories against Scotland which betrays their Caledonian origin. The fact is that the Scottish sense of humour differs slightly from the English sense of humour, but I am afraid I have no time to indicate the difference. There is humour in the country of Stevenson and Barrie; and if the joke is often against Scotland, what better proof could there be that it is humour, and not satire?

Whatever may be said of Americans in real life, it is certain that their literature has humour. Personally I do not think that the Americans are nearly as proud as they ought to be of this fact; Mark Twain ought to be to the American what Bums is to the Scot, and rather more. The hall-mark of American humour is its pose of illiteracy. All the American humorists spend their time making jokes against themselves. Artemus Ward pretended that he was unable even to spell. Mark Twain pretended that he had received no education beyond spelling, and most of his best remarks are based on this affectation of ignorance. “What is your bête noire?” asked the revelations-of-character book, and Mark Twain replied, “What is my which?” “He spelt it Vinci, but pronounced it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce”—that is perhaps one of the greatest jokes of literature, but the whole point of it lies in a man pretending to be worse educated than he really is.

Mr. Leacock, as a rule, amuses by laughing at himself. America, on the other hand, has very little to show in the way of satire. Lowell was satirical, in a rather heavy vein, and Mr. Leacock is satirical occasionally, in a way that seems to me purely English. I want to allude to that later on; for the present let it be enough to note that the Americans, like the English and the Scots, do possess a literary tradition of non-satirical humour.

Thus far, we have concluded that the humorous in literature is the preserve of that period which succeeds the French Revolution, and of those peoples which speak the English language under its several denominations; unless by the word humour you understand “satire.”

It is high time, obviously, that we attempted some definition of what ‘satire is, or at least of the marks by which it can be distinguished from non-satirical humour. It is clear from the outset that the author who laughs at himself, unless the self is a deliberately assumed one, is not writing satire. Happy Thoughts and The Diary of a Nobody may be what you will; they are not satire. The Tramp Abroad is not satire; My Lady Nicotine is not satire. For in all these instances the author, with a charity worthy of the Saints—and indeed, St. Philip Neri’s life is full of this kind of charity—makes a present of himself to his reader as a laughingstock.

In satire, on the contrary, the writer always leaves it to be assumed that he himself is immune from all the follies and the foibles which he pillories. To take an obvious instance, Dickens is no satirist when he introduces you to Mr. Winkle, because there is not the smallest reason to suppose that Dickens would have handled a gun better than Mr. Winkle. But when Dickens introduces you to Mr. Bumble he is a satirist at once, for it is perfectly obvious that Dickens would have handled a porridge-ladle better than Mr. Bumble did. The humorist runs with the hare; the satirist hunts with the hounds.

There is, indeed, less contempt in satire than in irony. Irony is content to describe men exactly as they are, to accept them professedly, at their own valuation, and then to laugh up its sleeve. It falls outside the limits of humorous literature altogether; there is Irony in Plato, there is irony in the Gospels; Mr. Galsworthy is an ironist, but few people have ever laughed over Mr. Galsworthy.

Satire, on the contrary, borrows its weapons from the humorist; the satirized figure must be made to leap through the hoops of improbable adventure and farcical situation. It is all the difference between The Egoist and Don Quixote. Yet the laughter which satire provokes has malice in it always; we want to dissociate ourselves from the victim ; to let the lash that curls round him leave our withers unwrung. It is not so with humour: not so (for instance) with the work of an author who should have been mentioned earlier, Mr. P. G. Woodhouse. To read the adventures of Bertie Wooster as if they were a satire on Bertie Wooster, or even on the class to which Bertie Wooster may be supposed to belong, is to misread them in a degree hardly possible to a German critic. The reader must make himself into Bertie Wooster in order to enjoy his Jeeves, just as he must make himself into Eliza’s husband in order to enjoy his Eliza. Nobody can appreciate the crackers of humour unless he is content to put on his fool’s cap with the rest of the party.

What, then, is the relation between humour and satire? Which is the parent, and which the child? Which is the normal organ, and which the morbid growth? I said just now that satire borrows its weapons from the humorist, and that is certainly the account most of us would be prepared to give of the matter off-hand. Most things in life, we reflect, have their comic side as well as their serious side; and the good-humoured man is he who is content to see the humorous side of things even when the joke is against himself. The comic author, by persistently abstracting from the serious side of things, contrives to build up a world of his own, whose figures are all grotesques, whose adventures are the happy adventures of farce. Men fight, but only with foils; men suffer, but only suffer indignities; it is all a pleasant nursery tale, a relief to be able to turn to it when your mind is jaded with the sour facts of real life. Such, we fancy, is the true province of the Comic Muse; and satire is an abuse of the function.

The satirist is like one who should steal his little boy’s water-pistol and load it with vitriol, and so walk abroad flourishing it in men’s faces. A treacherous fellow, your satirist. He will beguile the leisure of an Athenian audience, needing some rest, Heaven knows, from the myriad problems of a relentless war with powerful neighbours, by putting on a little play called The Birds. Capital; we shall enjoy that. Two citizens of Athens, so the plot runs, take wings to themselves and set out to build a bird city, remote from the daily instance of this subnubilar world. Excellent! That is just what we wanted, a relief for tired brains! And then, the fellow has tricked us, it proves, after all! His city in the clouds is, after all, only a parody of an Athenian colony, and the ceremonies which attend its inauguration are a burlesque, in the worst possible taste, of Athenian colonial policy. We came here for a holiday, and we are being treated to a sermon instead! No wonder the Athenian audiences often refused the first prize to Aristophanes.

Skip twenty-one centuries, and find yourself in the times of the early Georges. There has been a great vogue, of late, for descriptions of travel in strange countries; and now (they are saying in the coffee-houses) the Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, has written a burlesque of these travel narratives, about countries that never existed at ail—the ingenious dog! And then, as we read, it dawns upon us suddenly that Lilliput and Brobdingnag are not, after all, so distant, so imaginary; in fact, we have never really got away from the England of the Georges at all. The spirit of satire has overlooked us, like a wicked fairy, and turned the milk of human kindness sour as we churned it.

My present thesis, not dogmatically asserted but rather thrown out as if for discussion, is that this way of viewing the relations between humour and satire is a perversion of history. To think of satire as a particular direction which humour may happen to take, a particular channel into which humour may be diverted, is to neglect, surely, the broad facts as we have stated them above. Humour is of an age, satire of all ages; humour is of one particular civilization, satire of all countries. Is it not, then, more reasonable to suppose that satire is a normal function of the human genius, and humour that has no satire in it a perversion of the function, a growth away from the normal? That our sense of the ridiculous is not, in its original application, a child’s toy at all, but a weapon, deadly in its efficacy, entrusted to us for exposing the shams and hypocrisies of the world? The tyrant may arm himself in triple mail, may surround himself with bodyguards, may sow his kingdom with a hedge of spies, so that free speech is crushed and criticism muzzled. Nay, worse, he may so debauch the consciences of his subjects with false history and with sophistical argument that they come to believe him the thing he gives himself out for, a creature half-divine, a heaven-sent deliverer. One thing there is that he still fears; one anxiety still bids him turn this way and that to scan the faces of his slaves. He is afraid of laughter. The satirist stands there, like the little child in the procession when the Emperor walked through the capital in his famous new clothes; his is the tiny voice that interprets the consciousness of a thousand onlookers: “But, Mother, he has no clothes on at all!”

Satire has a wider scope, too. It is born to scourge the persistent and ever-recurrent follies of the human creature as such. And, for anybody who has the humility to realize that it is aimed at him, and not merely at his neighbours, satire has an intensely remedial effect; it purifies the spiritual system of man as nothing else that is human can possibly do. Thus, every young man who is in love should certainly read The Egoist (there would be far less unhappiness in marriage if they all did), and no schoolmaster should ever begin the scholastic year without re-reading Mr. Bradby’s Lanchester Tradition, to remind him that he is but dust.

Satire is thus an excellent discipline for the satirized: whether it is a good thing for the satirist is more open to question. Facit indignatio versum; it is seldom that the impetus to write satire comes to a man except as the result of a disappointment. Since disappointment so often springs from love, it is not to be wondered at that satirists have ever dealt unkindly with woman, from the days of Simonides of Amorgos, who compared woman with more than thirty different kinds of animals, in every case to her disadvantage. A pinched, warped fellow, as a rule, your satirist. It is misery that drives men to laughter. It is bad humour that encourages men first to be humorous. And it is, I think, when good-humoured men pick up this weapon of laughter, and, having no vendettas to work off with it, begin tossing it idly at a mark, that humour without satire takes its origin.

In a word, humour without satire is, strictly speaking, a perversion, the misuse of a sense. Laughter is a deadly explosive which was meant to be wrapped up in the cartridge of satire, and so, aimed unerringly at its appointed target, deal its salutary wound humour without satire is a flash in the pan; it may be pretty to look at, but it is, in truth, a waste of ammunition. Or, if you will, humour is satire that has run to seed; trained no longer by an artificial process, it has lost the virility of its stock. It is port from the wood, without the depth and mystery of its vintage rivals. It is a burning-glass that has lost its focus; a passenger, pulling no weight in the up-stream journey of life; meat that has had the vitamins boiled out of it; a clock without hands. The humorist, in short, is a satirist out of a job; he does not fit into the scheme of things; the world passes him by.

The pure humorist is a man without a message. He can preach no gospel, unless it be the gospel that nothing matters; and that in itself is a foolish theme, for if nothing matters, what does it matter whether it matters or not? Mr. Wodehouse is an instance in point, Mr. Leacock nearly so, though there is a story in Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich about the amalgamation of two religious bodies on strictly commercial lines, which comes very close to pure satire. Barry Pain is a humorist who is seldom at his best when he attempts satire; the same fate dogged Mark Twain, though I think he would have liked to be a satirist. Mr. A. A. Milne is in a similar case, and so indeed are all the modem Punch writers by the terms (you might say) of their contract. No contrast is more surprising than the contrast in atmosphere between the letterpress of Punch before 1890 and its letterpress since. The old Punches are full of very bad satire; there is hardly anything else in them; it is all on the same sort of level as John Bull in its Bottomley days—anti-aristocratic, and-foreign, and-clerical, very much like some rag of the Boulevards. Today, it is the home of superbly finished humour—humour cultivated as a fine art. But satire is absent.

Some of the greatest humorists have halted between two destinies, and as a rule have been lost to satire. Sir W. S. Gilbert, a rather unsuccessful satirist in his early days, inherited the dilemma from his master, Aristophanes. Patience is supreme satire, and there is satire in all the operas; but in their general effect they do not tell: the author has given up to mankind what was meant for a party. Mr. Chesterton is in the same difficulty; he is like Johnson’s friend who tried to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness would keep on coming in. The net effect of his works is serious, as it is meant to be, but his fairy-like imagination is for ever defeating its own object in matters of detail. But indeed, Mr. Chesterton is beyond our present scope; for he is rash enough to combine humour not merely with satire but with serious writing ; and that, it is well known, is a thing the public will not stand.

A few modem authors have succeeded, in spite of our latter-day demand for pure humour, in being satirists first and last: Samuel Butler of Erewhon, and W. H. Mallock, and Mr. Belloc, I think, in his political novels. The very poor reception given to these last by the public proves that there is more vinegar in them than oil.

Humour, if we may adopt for a moment the loathsome phraseology of journalism, has “come to stay.” It is, if our analysis be true, a byproduct and in a sense a waste-product; that does not mean that it has no significance. A pearl is a by-product, and from the fishmonger’s point of view a waste-product; but it has value so long as people want it. And there is at present a public demand for humour which implies that humour should take its place among the arts, an art for the art’s sake, not depending on any fruits of practical utility for its estimation. There is art in O. Henry, though he does not scourge our vices like Juvenal; there is art in Heath Robinson, though he does not purge our consciences like Hogarth.

What rank humour is to take as compared with serious writing is, perhaps, an unanswerable problem; our histories of nineteenth century literature have not yet been bold enough to tackle it. It is probable, I think, that humour is relatively ephemeral; by force of words humour means caprice, and the caprice of yesterday is apt to leave us cold. There is a generation not yet quite dead which says that nothing was ever so funny as the Bongaultier Ballads. The popularity of the Ingoldsby Legends is now, to say the least, precarious; and I doubt if the modem youth smacks its lips as we did over the Bab Ballads themselves. Read a book of A. A. Milne’s, and then turn to an old volume of Voces Populi, and you will realize that even in our memory humour has progressed and become rarefied.

What reputations will be left unassailable when the tide has receded, it would be rash to prophesy. For myself, I like to believe that one name will be immortal at least, that of Mr. Max Beerbohm. Incomparably equipped for satire, as his cartoons and his parodies show, he has yet preferred in most of his work to give rein to a gloriously fantastic imagination, a humorist in satirist’s clothing. One is tempted to say with the prophet: May I die the death of the righteous, and may my last end be like his!

Meanwhile, a pertinent question may be raised. What will be the effect of all this modem vogue for pure humour upon the prospects of satiric writing? We are in danger, it seems to me, of debauching our sense of the ridiculous to such an extent as to leave no room for the disciplinary effect of satire. I remember seeing Mr. Shaw’s Press Cuttings first produced in Manchester. I remember a remark, in answer to the objection that women ought not to vote because they do not fight, that a woman risks her life every time a man is born, being received (in Manchester!) with shouts of happy laughter. In that laughter I read the tragedy of Mr. Bernard Shaw. He lashes us with virulent abuse, and we find it exquisitely amusing. Other ages have stoned the prophets; ours pelts them instead with the cauliflower bouquets of the heavy comedian.

No country, I suppose, has greater need of a satirist today than the United States of America; no country has a greater output of humour, good and bad, which is wholly devoid of any satirical quality. If a great American satirist should arise, would his voice be heard among the hearty guffaws which are dismally and eternally provoked by Mutt, Jeff, Felix, and other kindred abominations? And have we, on this side of the Atlantic, any organ in which pure satire could find a natural home?

I believe the danger which I am indicating to be a perfectly real one, however fantastic it may sound—the danger, I mean, that we have lost, or are losing, the power to take ridicule seriously. That our habituation to humorous reading has inoculated our systems against the beneficent poison of satire. Unhappy the Juvenal whom Rome greets with amusement; unhappier still the Rome, that can be amused by a Juvenal

I am not sure, in reading through this essay again, that there is any truth in its suggestions. But I do not see that there can be any harm in having said what I thought, even if I am no longer certain that I think it.

Featured image: “Satire on Tulip Mania,” by Jan Brueghel, ca. 1640.

Mulled Wine À La Broadbridge—A Christmas Delight!

Mrs. B.: “Would you like a punch, Vicar, ’tis the season?”

Vicar of Aldenham and Radlett: “Well, I don’t mind if I do, Mrs Broadbridge!”

So, quick as a flash, I gave him a playful and fairly gentle punch on the rib-cage. He was quite rattled.

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit enjoying mulled wine, by John Leech.

“Only joking, Padre!” I reassured him. “Look what I’ve just been cooking up!”

“Oh, I say, Mrs Broadbridge, the devil’s brew! I’d be most partial to some, just a drop or two, mind. I don’t wish to be had up for failing my breath-test.”

“Don’t let those interfering socialists bother you, especially at Christmas, Vicar! We can toast Margaret and Dennis Thatcher!”


  • 2-3 bottles of red Hirondelle wine
  • ½ -¾ cup of Leslie’s Drambuie or Glayva
  • ½ – ¾ cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
  • 1-2 oranges, sliced, or even 1 orange and 1 lemon


  1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine all ingredients and bring to the boil. Stir occasionally.
  2. Once boiling, reduce heat to simmer and cook for a further 5-7 minutes.
  3. Pass it through a strainer into the Broadbridge punch bowl.
  4. Garnish with a further slice of orange and, if you are really being fancy, a cinnamon stick. Les quite likes canned tangerines rather than an orange in the mixture but to me this removes all the subtle tanginess from it.

Serve hot, and enjoy with cheese footballs or Marmite ™ twiglets. Serves 4.

Vicar: “In the name of the Father, Son and not forgetting the Holy Spirit, I give you my thanks and blessing – may I call you Lilian?”

Mrs B: “Ooh, vicar, you’ve made this little girl blush!”

Vicar: “I feel a jolly Christmas Carol coming on. ‘When shepherds washed their socks by night… 🎵’”

The Two Cravats: A Broadbridge Christmas Anecdote

I thought I’d give Leslie a pair of silk cravats, one polka dot and the other paisley, for Christmas. They give a man a certain je ne sais choir [sic], a sophistication, and a cravat looks very good worn with a suede-fronted cardigan. Just the ticket, too, at Porters Park clubhouse at the 19th hole.

Once when we were holidaying in Sussex, I even saw an old chap in a cravat picking blackberries! So, I went to Austin Reed in Watford, and enjoyed a pleasant half-hour choosing and discussing the niceties of cravats with my favourite assistant there, Roger, a real lady’s man but with an intelligent eye for other men and their needs too.

Man wearing a cravat.

So, the great day came and Leslie seemed quite chuffed: ‘A nice variation on the theme of the two ties, Lilian, and very smart they are too’. Every other Boxing Day we book a buffet table, usually with Violet and that smoothie of a husband of hers, Lionel, at the Red Lion (in alternate years they take us to the Griffon in Godalming, a somewhat chi-chi place but they do an excellent Dover sole there).

Well, Leslie was all ready to go and what do I see but him with the paisley cravat round his neck and beaming, perhaps just a little full of himself.

“So,” I said, “You didn’t like the other…”

But then I noticed he had folded the polka dot one into his Burton jacket top pocket.

“Les, you didn’t go to Watford Grammar or manage a branch of Barclay’s for nothing! Our Liam would call you a cool dud, or whatever the slang is.”

And I gave Les a real smacker of a kiss, which I had to immediately wipe off, having carefully applied my Max Factor not ten minutes earlier. But I’m a spontaneous woman and, I hope, a warm-hearted one!

Editor: That’s it, Dr. Stocker, you are now retired as the Postil Magazine’s gag-writer!

Dr. Stocker: Hey! That’s a grave blow, I’m taking this real hard.

Editor: Man up! In 2022 you will be our regular pop music correspondent. And I fully expect our dear lady friend, Mrs. Broadbridge, to make the odd appearance in these columns.

Dr. Stocker: Okay, bro… whatever!

The featured image shows, “The Spirit of Christmas in Regent Street,” by William Heath Robinson; painted in 1928.

Verse And Worse: A Response To Philip Larkin

They tuck you up, your Mum and Dad
So you sleep sweet the whole night through
Their values really are quite trad
They only want the best for you!

And they were much loved in their turn
By grandparents in duffel coats
Who, though they seemed a little stern,
Were kindly souls, this poet notes.

Man hands on happiness to man
And with it comes both health and wealth
Make the most of life – you can!
And you’ll have happy kids yourself!

The featured image shows, “Mother Tucking Children into Bed,” by Norman Rockwell; painted in 1921.

Wit Collection Exclusive: In Bed With Dr. Stocker

While the venerated Postil Magazine rigorously upholds family values (Editor: ‘I should hope so, my girlfriend watches my every move!’) and while predominantly conformist sexualities prevail among its readership (thanks be to God), this episode of the ever popular “Wit Collection” is unprecedently edgy, courageous and even risqué. I urge readers to enjoy exploring with me potentially delicate themes of fancy, desire and longing without ever descending into the graphic or the remotely vulgar. Lest you tremble, I will seek some kind of intellectual imprimatur by pointing to a proud British tradition of faintly smutty innuendo, while at the same time maintaining a façade of the utmost propriety and decency. The most famous seaside postcard, after all, is one that I cannot for a moment rival, and comes courtesy of the artist/gag-writer Donald McGill:

A bookish man and an embarrassed pretty woman are sitting under a tree.
Bookish man: “Do you like Kipling?”
Blushing girl: “I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled!”
“Kippled? Was ist dass?” asked my puzzled friend Zbig, who earnestly and nobly desires to become more English but still has some way to go.

Some hints for fellow learners: the Bloomsbury Group were a pretty dirty lot. As far as I know, no scholar has attempted to constructed a diagram to indicate who bedded whom, where, when, why or how. This would surely defeat the finest Cambridge minds. Lytton Strachey was one of its naughtiest members, but E.M. Forster was the worst of the bunch when he famously declared “Only connect.” Here, I will confine myself to the marriage of Clive Bell and Vanessa Stephen, and the aesthetic precepts of their much-admired Roger Fry and Bernard Berenson. Oh, and Gwen John was one of a number of the lecherous, ageing Rodin’s girlfriends. Kiki Smith is a famous contemporary sculptor. Barnett Newman described the meaningful verticals in his impenetrable abstract paintings as zips. How much more need I explain to you plebs?

One final thing to add. There are more jokes which our somewhat prim and spoilsport editor has felt fit to censor. These can be provided on receipt of a postal order to the value of £6 (mailing address provided upon request).

Edwin Landseer, The Monarch of the Glen, 1851.

What did Clive say to Vanessa when they exchanged their wedding kiss?’ “Tu es très Bell!”
And the morning after, to his best friend, who asked him whether he knew what to do: “Roger, Roger of course! I knew I was right about her Significant Form… not to mention Berenson’s tactile values.”


The military tribunal in 1915 is assessing a problematic recruit. “So, Mr Strachey, what would you do if a German solder were attempting to violate your sister?”
“Ha, I’d come between them!”


What did Picasso say to the otherly-abled hitch-hiker with three eyes, no arms and one leg? “Aye, aye, aye, you look like my kind of girl, ’armless enough. Hop in!”


Back in the 1970s, a notorious Cambridge college imposed a strict R18 admissions policy: Emanuelle.


I’ve set up a dating agency for unsexy chemists which, of course, is called “Love Chemistry.” Unfortunately, we attracted lots of geeks in anoraks who, of course, love chemistry. They had to be explained that our prime aim is covalent bonding.


As a practising photographer myself (did you say pornographer? see me afterwards!) I felt it appropriate to create a still-life homage to the iconic Robert Mapplethorpe, Banana and Sliced Pawpaw.


What did Dr Stocker, art critic of The Sun, say of an abject, sexualised, edgy exhibition by a well-known American sculptress? “Very Kinky Smith!”


Barnett Newman had just spent a shattering day working in the studio. His girlfriend (looking very demure) therefore demanded: “Barney, please unzip!”


Guido Reni had just painted a remarkably camp looking Jesus. The title was obvious: Ecce Homo.


What did Rodin’s mistresses call him? The Monarch of the Gwen.


What was Quentin Crisp’s favourite Noel Coward song? The Stately Homos of England.


The raunchy Pop Artist Allen Jones has just been convicted for an act of gross indecency. Noting previous good conduct, however, the Magistrate informed him: “Mr Jones, I think this calls for a suspender sentence.”


What is Giovanna Arnolfini coyly saying to her husband in Van Eyck’s famous portrait? “You turn me on, Vladimir!”


The title of a new exhibition of highly select etchings, containing suspect erotic content, is “Top of the Rops.”


What did the feminists write on the door to The Turkish Bath? NO INGRESS.


Captions for Ingres’s Turkish Bath: Waiting for Hugh Hefner. Or possibly… Women for Trump HQ.


What was Angelica Kauffmann’s advertising slogan? Put the Madam into Adam!


What is the bumper sticker of gay-friendly Flemish art historians? I likes Van Dycks.


What did a witty Mannerist art critic observe of Parmigianino’s latest masterpiece? “He gives a whole new meaning to neckrophilia.”

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1535-40


Sub-title of my fine new book on American Architecture from Green & Green to the Chrysler Building: Organic to Orgasmic.


My friend Moshe reacted fiercely to Barry Manilow coming out: “Oy vey! Next thing he’ll be telling us he’s Jewish!”


My mate Ron has just come out. “I’m a pansexual, Mark,” he told me. “Me too,” I replied, “Those Le Creuset ones, wow, they’re really hot!”


Real Estate Ad: Shabby Mackintosh for sale. Suit Art Nouveau pervert.

A bonny cathair for a “Scotsman wi’ wee shanks an’ a verra long back,” by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Glasgow Museums).

An evil-looking man in a long raincoat goes into the newsagents and asks the young shop girl: “Have you a copy of The Spectator?” The blushing girl replies: “Oh no, Sir! We don’t stock that sort of thing!”


Binary soul star Marvin Gaye is a real he-man (despite the name). His latest hit is “It takes 10, baby!”


My portly non-binary friend Don(na) urges me to opt for pretzels as “Trans fat chips are fat trans unfriendly!”

Dr. Mark Stocker is the resident humorist for the Postil Magazine. Overdoses of his jokes can damage your health. Please indulge with caution.

The featured image shows, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” by Jan van Eyck; painted 1434.