Sunday, 10 October 2004

L'esprit de l’escalier*

The French call it staircase wit: the flashing rejoinder that would have had everyone reeling with admiration if you had thought of it sooner, before you left the party and descended the stairs. In my case they were never very flashing and usually came to me even later, say in the taxi halfway home.

But on just one occasion a good one entered my head in time and not too late.

It was at a meeting of international sports officials. In the coffee break a group were discussing the relative merits of various sports, all of them, of course, asserting that the one which they were there to represent was the finest, most important and most worthwhile. A very senior person involved in boxing said that his sport had three thousand years of history behind it and was called the Noble Art, but he was nastily put down by the swimming man who said that noble was a funny way of describing an activity consisting essentially of punching a man with the object of mashing his brain to a jelly. Calm was restored when an Eminent Horsy Lady pointed out coolly that actually equestrianism was the oldest sport of all and therefore had status above all others, so there.

Lurking on the fringe of the group as befitted my junior position, it came to me that I could make a memorable contribution to this rather fatuous debate.

“Yes, ma’am”, I said, craning forward, “but antiquity does not always confer prestige. I mean, it doesn’t with professions, does it?”

It would be nice to relate that this sally was followed by a puzzled pause and then, as the point sank in, laughter and possibly even a round of applause.

But it was not to be, and I shall never know whether the EHL would have appreciated my observation, for as I started to speak some idiot gave forth, loudly and confidently, with a remark of utter banality and pointlessness, and nobody heard what I said.

I never again had an opportunity, or indeed a thought, as good as that.

*Pedant’s Corner: If you think I’ve got the phrase wrong you will find that Verlaine wrote it this way and not d'escalier. I looked it up and apparently either is OK.

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