One of my grandfather’s closest friends was George Plimpton, who co-founded and was the editor-in-chief of the Paris Review for fifty years, and who was particularly famous for his participatory journalism. He was a sufficient sportsman (not a loose definition of ‘sufficiency’) that he would train at a pursuit for a while in order to test it out for himself on a world-class level. Thus, for instance, he pitched at the best batters in the American leagues before a World Series and afterwards wrote Out of my League (1961). On another occasion, and before the whole of socialite New York, he boxed three rounds with Archie Moore, then the light-heavyweight champion of the world, and afterwards wrote an article for Sports Illustrated (1959) and later Shadow Box (1977). He had taken his boxing coach, George Brown, at the recommendation of Ernest Hemingway.
But with my grandfather Plimpton engaged in at least one memorable piece of participatory journalism of a rather different nature. My grandfather and Plimpton roomed together at King’s College, Cambridge, where Plimpton studied after his military service as a tank driver. From thence they sent letters to Country Life, spoofing the pomposity of that magazine’s correspondence section at the time. (Whether those adjective still obtain I do not know. I am sure it varies from week to week.) One such letter made it in. I reconstruct it here from my grandfather’s telling:
‘Sir – Whilst breakfasting the other morning I was slightly surprised when a wasp, which had hitherto been preying on the marmalade, flew of its own volition into the electric toaster, where it was, of course, immediately cremated. I wonder whether any of your readers have had a similar experience.’
It is a superb use of italics; the shocking thing, they insist, was not the event but the remarkable wilfulness of the wasp. “Of course” is another such delicate touch, proclaiming that the writer is a rational man of the world, able to acknowledge the inevitable – as is the final formulation. “I wonder whether any of your readers have had a similar experience” was a very common sign-off in those days, typical of the sort of pointless letter that hid a desire to tell behind the figleaf of a desire to listen. In this context, of course, the wondering was more than usually implausible.
There is something, I maintain, peculiarly British about this letter; its context, contents, and the style of its humour, and that it was, once, the occupation of two undergraduates to write such letters at all. My grandfather is British. Plimpton, of course, American. But, raised in New York, his wit and demeanour had something in common, it seems to me, with those great ex-patriot American writers who were so often able to observe Britain more keenly than the British. Henry James and T S Eliot spring to mind; more recently Harry Mathews and Frederick Seidel, two American writers of, at least, strongly European temperament. There is something in those italics – as much in the fact of them, in the gesture towards a joke, in its near-transparency, the quality of it being paper-thin, and that it is just the passing flicker of a smile – which seems uniquely British.
This issue of the Soho Revue considers the notion of Britishness, and whether it exists as a notion to consider. Shakespeare had something of this wit and gave it to his Danish Prince. The literary critic Harold Bloom, who has claimed that Shakespeare invented much of human behaviour, identifies such crisp irony whenever Hamlet says “I humbly thank you” – since the Prince is generally neither humble nor grateful. Dr Jaspreet Singh Boparai considers how people have been lacking any similar sense of irony (and perhaps sense at all) regarding Shakespeare in the 400th years since his death and the subsequent anniversary ‘celebrations’. Dasha Varvarina finds it lacking in the attempts to make or hijack art from the campaigners on both sides of the ‘Brexit’ debate. Philippa Dunjay wonders whether we’ve just invented a dream of Britishness to sell to others, reviewing Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers at the Barbican. J L Blarney considers condensed wit – of a kind – in an examination of the ‘Dear John’ letter. And Hayley Daen’s restaurant review has nothing to do with any of this.
Perhaps the British wit has something particularly to do with manners. I shall bid you goodbye as Plimpton did his housekeeper, according to my grandfather’s obituary; with somebody else’s words:
‘We lived in a College hostel during our first year, where we had a rather tiresome housekeeper. She had been chatting for a long time to George in his room one day when he was recovering from flu. After a while in order to get rid of her, George said, “I must ask you to leave me now, Mrs Denton: my favorite radio program is just coming on.” As she paused expectantly in the doorway George switched on the radio, and the sprightly announcer
said, “Come now, children, clap your hands.”’