Strange how it can sometimes run!

It’s coming up to noon on the 18th, i.e. yesterday.  The morning has been busy and this afternoon a number of items on the ‘to do’ list are making it difficult for me to put together a Post for today.  I was minded to simply write a small piece saying this and apologising for leaving you, dear reader, in the lurch for a day.

Thought I might call the Post, ‘Events, dear boy, events’, the famous quotation from the Rt. Hon. Harold Macmillian, Prime Minister of the UK between January 1957 and October 1963.  Did a quick Google search to check the quote and came across a delightful piece from The Telegraph British newspaper published in June 2002.  So I’m cheating by selectively republishing the article in that paper written by Robert Harris.

As Macmillan never said: that’s enough quotations

Reading through the Guardian over breakfast the other day, I came across a column headlined “Events, ol’ buddy, events”. It was all I could do not to hurl it across the kitchen.

This was not because the column was bad, or because the Guardian’s leader pages were any more irritating than usual, but simply because I knew what was coming.

And, yes, of course, there it was, down towards the bottom of the page: “All politicians know – and often quote – the response from Harold Macmillan when asked what a prime minister most feared: ‘Events, dear boy, events’.”

Later Robert Harris writes,

It’s not as if it’s even been reliably authenticated. Some say Macmillan made it to President Kennedy, others to a journalist after dinner. Denis Healey claims it referred to foreign policy.

Alistair Horne, Macmillan’s official biographer (who tells me he can’t put his finger on it, either) thinks it may have been a response to the Profumo affair.

It didn’t appear in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations until 1999 (where it is carefully described as “attributed”) which may explain why hardly anybody used it until three years ago.  Now it’s as unavoidable as “a week is a long time in politics” or “it’s the economy, stupid”.

I’m not trying to be snooty about this. I can’t remember whether I’ve ever actually used it myself, but I’ve certainly used plenty of quotations like it – aphorisms that fall into a particular category: just above the out-and-out cliché and just below the level of something genuinely apt and unfamiliar.

Then Robert writes in a way that slightly touches a nerve of this poor writer, having lent on the use of a quotation from time to time!

Every writer and reader will no doubt have their own particular favourites that they’d be grateful never to hear again, but these are mine:

  1.  “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs” – Enoch Powell on Joseph Chamberlain.
  2.  “There are three bodies no sensible man directly challenges: the Roman Catholic Church, the Brigade of Guards and the National Union of Mineworkers” – Harold Macmillan (also attributed to Stanley Baldwin).
  3.  “In the long run we are all dead” – John Maynard Keynes.
  4.  “I’d rather take advice from my valet than from the Conservative Party Conference” – Arthur Balfour.
  5.  “Socialism is what a Labour Government does” – Herbert Morrison.
  6.  “Not while I’m alive ‘e ain’t” – Ernest Bevin, on being told that Morrison was “his own worst enemy”.
  7.  “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” – de Gaulle.
  8.   “Is it better to be loved than feared, or the reverse? The answer is that it is desirable to be both, but because it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved” – Niccolo Machiavelli.
  9.  “Treason is a question of dates” – Talleyrand.
  10.  “It is worse than a crime, it is a blunder” – Anotine Boulay de la Meurthe, on hearing of the execution of the Duc d’Enghien by Napoleon.

These are all, in their different ways, excellent quotations – epigrammatic or wise or cynical. They are certainly not as clichéd as “I don’t know what effect these men have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me”, as Wellington is usually misquoted, or Lady Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as Society”.

And yet, for all that, they are clichés, made slightly worse by the fact that using them is designed to convey a thin patina of learning. They are at once familiar, yet just unfamiliar enough to have a certain snob value.

Interesting list, don’t you think!

Is Mr. Harris immune?  Of course not!  Here’s how the article closes,

And while we’re about it, can we also lose those other phrases and images that have no specific author, but that regularly surface in columns (including mine)?

Let no more deckchairs be rearranged on the Titanic, or Fuhrers in their bunkers order around phantom divisions, or turkeys vote for Christmas, or horses be promoted by Caligula. Let there be no more strange deaths of Liberal/Tory/ Labour England.

“You have used every cliché except ‘God is love’ and ‘Please adjust your dress before leaving’,” Churchill (famously) said. In that spirit, I curse “events, dear boy, events”. As Cromwell (equally famously) declared: “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”

With no more ado, (there’s another cliché!), I will sign off.

3 thoughts on “Events!

  1. Clichés are brilliant. They are only overused because they are brilliant. And an excess of brilliance – like EVERYTHING ELSE – can pall, People use them for ages and then get all psuedo-intellectual about them and start complaining about them. (The eternal whinge is indeed a deep-rooted bit of the human brain.) If you don’t like a cliche, don’t use it, but allow others the freedom to speak the way they want. We already have a language police in France; we don’t want a cliche-police in the UK.

    “Rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic” is BRILLIANT; just don’t use it every five minutes. “It’s all gone pear-shaped” is sublime. “Kicking the can down the road” is wonderful; EXACTLY what the leaders of Europe have been doing. Of course, you might prefer “pissing about going round in circles – as always” or “talking the talk but not walking the walk ” (not one of my favourites) but for the moment, while pusillanimously procrastinating about doing anything really useful I shall continue kicking my own personal can down the road.

    My final word on this; “With clichés it’s a question of horses for courses.” and you may quote me on that.


  2. Oh my goodness, so refreshing; and how very fun and frivolous, especially for this Yank from the U.S. I do sincerely enjoy the European mind-set; and clichés do have a mind of their own don’t they.


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