Also, responses, retorts, rejoinders, repartee, reasons, banter, and a few thoughtful answers, with one perfect ignoratio elenchi thrown in at the end for good measure. Some are more or less familiar old chestnuts, but many are from my own experience and relate the events that led up to them. And a few are tributes to absent friends and acquaintances.
We don’t believe the answers anymore; we only use them to find the questions.
John Roc play Fire! 1969
When it was put to Mandy Rice-Davies during the 1963 vice trial of Stephen Ward in connection with the Profumo scandal, that Lord Astor denied having an affair with her or ever meeting her, she famously replied, “Well he would, wouldn’t he?”
Sarcastic actress to Rosalind Russell: “I dread to think of life at forty-five.”
Russell: “Why? What happened then?”
American actress Jean Harlow asked Margot Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, how she pronounced her first name.
“The ‘t’ is silent, as in ‘Harlow’.”
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was never short of a sharp retort. She and another woman approached a revolving door at the same time. The woman invited Dorothy to go ahead of her, saying, “Age before beauty.” Dorothy went first, with the quip, “And pearls before swine.”
President Calvin Coolidge was a man of so few words he was known as “Silent Cal”. When informed that he had died, Dorothy said, “How can they tell?”
As is frequently the case with writers, she had missed the deadline for an article one day, and the editor phoned with no response. Convinced that she was in and refusing to answer the phone, he asked the office boy to go to her apartment and knock on the door. He did so with no result. In desperation, he went out and threw pebbles at her window. Eventually, Dorothy opened the window and asked him what he wanted. The editor was waiting for her article, he told her.
“Well, tell him I’m too fucking busy and vice versa.”
Not everyone knows that when Juliet asked, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” (notice: no comma) she was not expecting him to give a location. “Wherefore” in Shakespeare’s time meant “why?” not “where?” So she was using a rhetorical question to complain: “We are forbidden to marry just because you are a Montague and I am a Capulet and our families are enemies.”
A woman with a feminist agenda had managed to convince some Middle East women that walking five feet behind their husbands was undignified and demonstrated inequality. On a return visit a few years later, when the political situation had grown more lively, she came across a woman she knew who was walking ten feet behind her husband.
Asked why, the woman replied, “Land mines.”
“Below some variation of ‘What Do They Look Like Now?’ there is inevitably an unflattering photo of me and hundreds of comments. … I used to feel compelled to respond. Once I contacted the author of a list of ‘Ugliest Former Child Actors’ to ask her why, as a woman, she was punishing other women for the way they looked. She wrote back immediately to apologise. ‘I write stupid things on the internet to pay the bills,’ she said. ‘I can’t afford integrity.’”
An edited extract from Where Am I Now: True Stories Of Girlhood And Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson, Penguin. In The Guardian 17/9/16 online.
“And whence such fair garments, such prosperity?
You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks
Tired of digging potatoes and spudding up docks
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers free.”
“Yes, that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
From “The Ruined Maid” by Thomas Hardy
“And always heels, because it’s like putting your ass on a pedestal.”
Veronica Webb, American super-model, TV presenter and beauty with brains, answering a question I’ve always wanted to ask. I have yet to learn why some men shave or wear ties.
[Journalist Megan made the mistake of getting too close to Gallagher, the subject of an article she was writing.]
Fellow journalist Sarah: “I need to know how to describe your relationship with Gallagher. Mac said to quote you directly. You can say whatever you want.”
Megan: “Just … say we were involved.”
Sarah: “That’s true, isn’t it?”
Megan: “No, but it’s accurate.”
From the film Absence of Malice, with Paul Newman (Gallagher) and Sally Field (Megan), 1981, written by journalist Kurt Luedtke. It was inspired by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, “in which, on March 9, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously (9-0) that, for a libel suit to be successful, the complainant must prove that the offending statement was made with ‘actual malice’ – that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan note from Encyclopaedia Britannica online
A barber was cutting a customer’s hair when a young boy walked into the shop.
“This is the stupidest kid in the world,” the barber whispered to the customer. “Watch this.”
The barber took a dollar and a quarter out of his pocket and held the dollar in one hand and the quarter in the other and said to the boy, “Which one of these do you want, kid?”
“I’ll take the quarter, sir.”
The barber gave him the quarter.
“Thank you, sir,” the boy said and left the shop.
“See what I mean?” said the barber. “This happens a couple times a week, and he always picks the quarter. The dumb kid never learns.”
Haircut finished, the man walked out of the shop and down the street and met the boy coming out of a shop licking an ice cream cone.
“Hey, there, son. I have a question for you. The barber tells me you go through this game a couple times a week and you always choose the quarter. How come you never pick the dollar?”
“’Cause the first time I pick the dollar the game’s over.”
Pippi Longstocking, the character created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, was nine years old. She lived alone in a house given to her by her father, who was temporarily missing at sea. Her mother was dead. When well-meaning people tried to put her into a children’s home, she argued, “I already have a place in a children’s home. I am a child and this is my home, therefore it is a children’s home.”
A broken family moved in next door – a divorced mother and her two children, Patty and Michael, who were thirteen and eleven. Their father called for them every Sunday for the visitation allowed by the court. He waited for them in the car and left them off without going up to the house, and so I never saw him.
When I met Patty and Michael, they told me proudly that their father was Bozo the Clown on a popular children’s programme on a local television station. Then one day they announced happily that they were going to be part of the small studio audience. I had never seen the show, but I couldn’t miss this special occasion.
The programme started with a batch of cartoons, and then Bozo began to chat with the children in the audience. The routine was predictable: “What’s your name, how old are you, what school do you go to, what’s your favourite hobby?” Some of the children mumbled shyly; others spoke up like veterans.
Then he came to Patty and Michael. He asked them the same questions, and then he mischievously threw Patty a curve ball.
“What does your father do for a living?” Bozo asked his daughter.
I held my breath. Patty was a bit slow intellectually. How would she manage this trick question? Would she blurt out the secret?
After the briefest hesitation, she answered proudly, “He’s in entertainment.”
Patty and Michael and Bozo smiled, enjoying their private joke.
Just at that moment, the camera was holding a tight shot of Bozo and the two children he normally saw only once a week. There was no comparing the facial features because of Bozo’s make-up, but make-up could not conceal the eyes. All three pair were the same – the proud, happy and infinitely sad eyes of the clown.
“Where did you come from, baby dear?”
“Out of the everywhere into here.”
“Where did you get your eyes of blue?”
“Out of the sky as I came through.”
When I was 44, my neighbour Anna, aged six, asked me one day how old I was. Children’s concepts of time fascinate me, so instead of answering her, I asked, “How old do you think I am?”
To Anna, anyone over five feet tall was a giant, and anyone older than fifteen was a National Monument. She took a wild guess: “Twenty-three.”
“Older than that,” I said.
“Older than that.”
“Older than that.”
Anna thought long and hard. I knew she could count to a hundred, but I wasn’t sure if she could do it without starting at “one”.
“Forty,” she said finally.
“Older than that,” I replied.
Anna stepped back and looked at me in amazement.
“God, Richard,” she said. “You should be dead by now.”
At the end of a storytelling session in a school, I asked if any of the kids had a story. An eight-year-old girl leapt up to volunteer, and I’d swear she told the whole story in one breath.
“There was a knock on the door and a little girl opened it and a man was standing there, and he said, “Is your mummy home?” The girl said, “Yes, but she’s busy.” The man said, “Is your daddy home?” The girl said, “Yes, but he’s very busy.” The man said, “I see a garda [Irish police] car parked in the street. Are any guards in the house?” The girl said, “Yes, but they’re very, very busy.” The man said, “What are they all doing?” The girl said, “Looking for me.”
A little girl asked her grandmother how old she was.
“Oh, I don’t know, child. I’m so old I’ve forgotten how old I am.”
“Why don’t you look in your pants?”
“In my pants?”
“Yes. In mine it says ‘age 5 to 7’.”
Attracta Dooley from County Offaly
“Stories ain’t never done no harm to nobody. And if they don’t do no good, how come they last so long?”
Uncle Remus, from the Disney film Song of the South, 1946.
No one has expressed the answer to Uncle Remus’ rhetorical question as clearly as a 5-year-old girl, who, when another child asked a storyteller if a story he had just told was true, explained: “It might not be true on the outside, but it’s true on the inside.”
“I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
Attributed to Oscar Wilde but unconfirmed as his reply to a customs official on his arrival in New York in 1882.
A story is told in Glendalough, County Wicklow – though it may not have happened there – about the time George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton met in Ireland for a holiday. Chesterton, whose ample bulk contrasted with Shaw’s spare frame, said to Shaw, “To look at you, anyone would think there was still a famine in Ireland.” To which Shaw replied, “And to look at you, Chesterton, anyone would think you caused it.”
Bill Fanning of Glendalough (See Vose)
Shaw to Chesterton: “Your fat, hairy self.”
Chesterton: “I could use you for a rope.”
One of Irish poet Thomas Moore’s most enduring songs is “The Meeting of the Waters”, which is a tribute to friends he stayed with near the picturesque spot in the Vale of Avoca in County Wicklow where the Avonmore and Avonbeg Rivers meet to form the Avoca River:
There is not in this wide world a valley so sweet
As the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet
One day Moore and a friend were admiring the view at the Meeting of the Waters. A beggar came up to them looking for money, but Moore ignored him. The beggar said:
“If Moore was a man without place of abode,
Without clothes on his back, and him walking the road,
Without bit in his belly or shoes on his feet,
He wouldn’t give a damn where the bright waters meet.”
Moore asked him to repeat it, and he did. “That’s as good as I ever heard,” said Moore. “I couldn’t do better myself.” And he gave him half a sovereign.
Peter Flanagan of Fermanagh, as told to Glassie.
Self-exiled in Paris for most of his life, Irish author Samuel Beckett, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, was overheard speaking English. A man asked him if he was British.
“On the contrary,” he replied.
Wikipedia captures the tone of Beckett’s writing perfectly: “Beckett’s work offers a bleak, tragi-comic outlook on human existence, often coupled with black comedy and gallows humour …”
Irish storyteller and author Mattie Lennon contributes this anecdote:
One day John Minihan, the photographer, was in Beckett’s company on a street in Paris. In an attempt to get a conversation going John said, “That’s a beautiful day.” Beckett agreed with a sort of grunt. Minihan continued “That’s a beautiful day to be alive.” To which Beckett replied, “I wouldn’t quite go that far.”
Someone once asked James Joyce if he would ever return to Dublin and he said, “Did I ever leave?”
From Mattie Lennon’s play about Irish songwriter Seán McCarthy: And All his Songs Were Sad, 2010.
John B. Keane (1928-2002) was one of the most prominent and prolific writers of the 20th century, most noted for his dramas and novels. For his day job he ran a pub in Listowel, County Kerry, which became a gathering place for writers. Fellow Kerryman Seán McCarthy (1923-1990) was a singer-songwriter whose creations have gained the ultimate accolade of being mistaken for folk songs. Seán and I were freelance contributors to various programmes on the national radio station RTÉ One. He was one of my favourites for the humour in the pieces he wrote and presented. One day as I was waiting my turn to be ushered in to the recording studio, I heard a commotion and recognised a familiar voice. Having finished his recording session, Seán was entertaining the girls at the reception desk. I jumped up like any groupie and introduced myself. We declared ourselves fans of each other, and he mentioned that he had married a fellow countrywoman of mine, and he paid her an off-handed but sincere tribute: “And you know, it was the wisest thing I ever did in my life.”
He told me this story about his brother, Mick, who was a music entrepreneur and all-round mover in the arts world. Mick wrote two autobiographical books, and after one of them was published he went into John B. Keane’s pub to proudly announce the event. John had his back to him when Mick hinted, “Where is the author’s room?”
Without turning around, John replied laconically, “Down the hall, first door to your left, and make sure there’s paper.”
A County Wexford man named Pat apparently felt that the advice “ask and you shall receive” was not strong enough to solve his problem. Pat had a daughter who was allergic to almost all kinds of ordinary food. The doctors could find no cure for her condition, the special foods she was able to eat were expensive, Pat was on the dole, and the bills were mounting up. One day when stress led to an argument with his wife, Pat went out into a field behind his house and roared out what amounted to a desperate and aggressive prayer.
“God,” he shouted, “why are you doing this to me and my daughter? What have I ever done on you? And more to the point, what has my little girl ever done on you? I’m not asking, God, I’m bloody demanding – make my daughter better.”
A few days later, Pat felt a burning sensation in his hands. He went to the doctor, thinking it might be an allergy. The doctor could do nothing, but he was young and open-minded, and he sent Pat to bio-energy experts, or, to use the non-scientific term, faith healers. They recognised the signs and taught Pat how to use his new gift. He passed his hands around his daughter’s body without touching her, and two weeks later, when she went to see the doctor, there was no trace of her allergy. As a result, she can now eat anything.
Peig Sayers (1873–1958) was an Irish-speaking storyteller and author of the Irish-language memoir Peig. In it, she recalls an incident when she was working as a servant. The family had gone out for the day, leaving no food for her and locking the cupboards. She was hungry and picked the lock, explaining to the reader: “Níl aon dlí ar an riachtanas – Necessity knows no law.” This is an ancient dictum appearing in many forms, including Latin as “Necessitas non habet legem” in the 14th-century poem “Piers Plowman”.
A woman approached poet Patrick Kavanagh in a pub. When he didn’t offer her a drink, she hinted, “Would you not ask me if I had a mouth on me?” He replied, “Why would I, when I can see it swinging between your two ears like a skipping rope?”
As told by Ronnie Drew
My alcohol consumption amounts to about a bottle of wine or maybe two beers annually, so I’ve always been puzzled over the hold the drink has on some people, especially creative artists. I asked a well-known Irish poet why he drank to excess. His reply was an eye-opener: “To stop the words.”
As a student at Trinity College in Dublin, John Philpot Curran (1750-1817) was nicknamed “Stuttering Jack” for his disastrous attempt at a maiden speech before the debating society, when he became completely tongue-tied. He was eventually acclaimed as “the most popular advocate of his time”, often defending suspected rebels during the 1798 Rebellion, and a devastatingly effective orator. He was sickly as a child and never enjoyed good health throughout his life.
When he was accused by Trinity authorities of keeping idle women in his lodgings, he protested that he never kept them idle.
Curran was asked why a certain Irish friend of his walked around London with his mouth open. “It is with the laudable intention of catching the English accent,” he explained.
A judge whose wig had gone awry asked Curran, “Do you see anything ridiculous in this wig?”
“Nothing but the head, my lord.”
Irish counsellor: “If you go on so, I’ll put you in my pocket.”
Curran: “If you do, you’ll have more law in your pocket than ever you had in your head.”
At the beginning of a duel between the wafer-slim Curran and the ample-bodied Judge “Bully” Egan, Egan complained, “He may hit me as easily as he would a haystack, and I might as well be aiming at the edge of a knife as at his thin carcass.”
Curran: “Well, let the gentlemen chalk the size of my body on your side, and let every ball hitting outside of that go for nothing.”
Following the 1798 Rebellion, the British bribed the Members of the Irish Parliament to vote itself out of existence. Curran was strolling with a former Member of the House of Lords, who had got his title for taking the bribe, on College Green across from the vacant Parliament building (now the Bank of Ireland). The lord said, “Curran, what do they mean to do with that useless building? For my part, I am sure I hate the sight of it.”
Curran: “I do not wonder at it, my lord. I never yet heard of a murderer who was not afraid of a ghost.”
Chief Justice Lord Norbury (1745-1831) was known as “the Hanging Judge” for his flagrant violation of legal rights of defendants. Even The Dictionary of National Biography saw fit to comment: “His indifference to human suffering … disgusted even those who thought the occasion called for firmness on the part of government.” Curran was defending in front of Norbury in a new courthouse in Carlow with poor acoustics and reverberations. An ass brayed outside, interrupting Norbury, and he asked what it was. “Merely the echo of the court,” said Curran.
Lord Norbury asked a non-lawyer to contribute a shilling for a lawyer’s burial.
Response: “Here’s a guinea. Bury twenty-one of them.”
(A guinea at various times was worth between 20 and 30 shillings.)
Lord Norbury owned a town house near Dublin’s city centre. His country home was a few miles away in Cabra. One night, he called on his coach driver to take him from town to Cabra. When the coach arrived in Cabra, the driver opened the door for his passenger, only to find the coach empty. He explained later that about halfway through the journey the coach seemed unusually light, and he reckoned that the devil must have snatched Norbury en route.
The incident gave rise to a Dublin expression, “Gone, like Lord Norbury with the devil”, which Brendan Behan used in a short story in his 1981 collection After the Wake.
“Cecil Sheridan and Séamus Healy were relieved of their choral duties by Dave Gold, the MD, on grounds of idiosyncratic harmonising. As they went down for coffee, Séamus said, ‘I’m sad about that, Cecil. That opening chorus haunts me.’ ‘Why wouldn’t it?’ said Cecil, ‘Didn’t ye murder it.’” (Toibín)
When I was living in Avoca, County Wicklow, in the 1980s, one of my neighbours was Günther Schütz, who parachuted into Ireland during the Second World War to spy on the British and was now living here in retirement, having married an Irish woman while he was interned as an alien combatant. One day I collected a letter at the post office from a German friend and opened and read it immediately. I was puzzled by the words “Grosse Liebe” (literally “Big Love”) above her signature. As I was leaving the post office I ran into Günther and asked him what the words meant. He glanced at the letter and said laconically, “You must have done something to make her very happy.”
“Do you want to go halves on a baby?”
“Feck off and have it yourself.”
(From the Gay Byrne Show, RTÉ Radio One 30/5/96, on chat-up lines. “Feck” is a polite Irish form of the F-word. “Feck off” is “more friendly-like”, according to a young woman who explained it to me the first time I heard it.)
Tipperary manager Babs Keating on his hurling team after losing: they were “dead only to wash them”. The Irish Times 12/8/06
A senior Fine Gael senator explained that a 35% VAT (value added tax) was imposed on headstones because they were considered a luxury: “Sure you can easily live without a tombstone.” The Sunday Press 17/4/83
When a giant challenged the elite warriors of the Red Branch of Ulster to cut off his head one night, and the following night to have their heads cut off by him, Laoghaire Buadach accepted. He cut off the giant’s head but failed to turn up for the return engagement. His excuse as recorded by William Butler Yeats in his play The Green Helmet was: “What is there to be said, when a man with a right to get it has come to ask for your head?”
“[My mother recalls] the day that granddad was on his way out the front door to go to the bank … when granny admonished him for wearing his old dungarees. My mother never forgot by way of defence his response: ‘Maggie, those who know me know I have better, and those who don’t know me don’t give a damn!’”
(Louise Scott in Murray.)
Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), the Great Liberator, campaigned for equal rights for Catholics and was the most widely popular politician in Ireland in his day. He was at dinner in England carving a roast pig. An Englishman said, “Whatever you do to that animal I’ll do the same to you.” Dan “stuck his finger up under its tail, and brought down some of the stuffing and ate it. He then took down his breeches and says to the man, ‘Will you do that to me?’”
(From the National Folklore Collection 871:10-11; collected 1934-40 by Máire Ní Sheasnáin from Mrs Margaret Fleming, Ballalley, Carrick on Suir, Co. Tipperary. The same story is told about Carreño, a famous wit in 19th-century Málaga, carving a turkey.)
In 1982, a double murderer was discovered in the home of the attorney general. The reaction of the taoiseach (Irish prime minister), Charles Haughey, was to label the event as “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented”. The resulting acronym GUBU became and remains part of the Irish vocabulary.
When the controversial Haughey was campaigning for re-election in his home county of Mayo one time, a local woman was asked if she would give her vote to him. Not one to be satisfied with a simple yes or no, she said, “I wouldn’t give him the itch if I thought he’d get warm on a cold day scratching himself.”
Scrap Saturday was a political satire broadcast on Saturday mornings by the national Irish radio station RTÉ One from 1989 to 1991, featuring popular stand-up comic Dermot Morgan. The best satire runs close to the bone, and Scrap Saturday frequently penetrated to the marrow. It was so well liked that people would stay at home to listen to it. But as much as the listeners loved it, the targets hated it, and it was dropped by the station after pressure from the politicians. When asked why the programme was axed when it was so popular among the listeners, RTÉ replied: “The show is not being axed. It’s just not being continued.”
This is probably the oldest documented account of a widespread tale/joke.
When Emperor Charles the Bald (823-877) was dining with the Irish scholar John Scotus Eriugena (815-877), he asked: “Quid distat inter sottum et Scottum? – What separates a drunkard from an Irishman?” (“Scottum” meant “Irishman” then.) John replied: “Tabula tantum – Only the table.”
Source: 12th-century English historian William of Malmesbury. John Scotus was on the Irish £5 note from 1976 to 1993.
John Pentland Mahaffy (1839-1919), Trinity College Provost, missed a rural train because clocks inside and outside the station gave different times. The station man explained that if the clocks had the same time “there’d be no need to have two.”
Frank McNally, “An Irishman’s Diary”, The Irish Times 25/10/13
An Irish bull is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary 1976 as: “an expression containing a contradiction in terms or implying ludicrous inconsistency”. In fact, it is a poetic expression in which a nugget of wisdom or sharp social comment peeps out between the seemingly contradictory or inconsistent words. Example from the father of Irish bulls, Sir Boyle Roche (1743-1807): “Half the lies our opponents tell about us are not true.” Northern Ireland politician Ian Paisley: “We’re not going to stand idly by and be murdered in our beds.” The Irish Times: “They are walking around with their heads in the sand, not facing the fact that they need to manage the policies inside their companies.” (28/10/00)
Mahaffy was asked what was the difference between an Irish bull and any other kind of bull.
“An Irish bull is always pregnant.”
James Boswell: “Is the Giant’s Causeway worth seeing?”
Samuel Johnson: “Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.”
Boswell, Life of Johnson, 1779
Bryan MacMahon used the split-second longer greeting in Irish to give the other person time to come up with an imaginative reply. Instead of “Conas atá tú? – How are you?”, he said “Cén chaoi a bhuil tú? – What way are you?” These are the responses he got.
“Perpendicular, no more.”
“Keeping the best side out, like the broken plate in the dresser.”
“Stumbling along between the immensities.” (Of life and death.)
“If I felt any better I’d see a doctor.”
The first three I heard MacMahon tell at a talk in Killarney in the 1980s. The fourth I found in Gabriel Fitzmaurice’s Beat the Goatskin till the Goat Cries.
PJ Kavanagh reported that he was served a cup of coffee by the landlady early one morning in County Antrim. “The landlady refused to let him pay for it, giving two reasons: one, her pub wasn’t open; two, she didn’t sell coffee anyway.”
PJ Kavanagh on “Start the Week” (Radio 4), in The Independent of Sunday 10/7/94.
Some of the approximately 30,000 people called “itinerants” by the government, “tinkers” by neutral “buffers” (people living in houses), “knackers” by those who don’t like them, and “travelling people” or simply “Travellers” by themselves, had traditionally set up their winter halting sites in the vacant fields around Tallaght, a suburb of Dublin. During the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, Tallaght became the fastest-growing urban area in Europe, and houses sprang up on those fields until the Travellers found themselves squeezed out of their accustomed sites.
The new Tallaght residents complained that the Travellers were moving in on them. From the Travellers’ point of view, the opposite was happening. In 1983, some 30 Traveller families occupied one of the few remaining areas available (as they saw it) to them – the Tallaght By-pass, which had just been completed and was ready to be opened to traffic. They intended to stay there until the government found them an alternative location. The residents wanted them to move.
I was living in Tallaght at the time and working as news director at an independent radio station much favoured by the Travellers for its playlist of exclusively Irish and country music. During the next few months I covered the unfolding story for not only the station, but also some of the Dublin newspapers and a Catholic weekly paper in Britain. My reports were seen as so impartial that each faction assumed I was on their side. As a resident, I was accepted into the Tallaght Newtown Action Committee meetings, where I heard “Burn the knackers out!” from the red-faced director of a local church’s youth group.
Minceir Misli (“Travellers’ Movement” in their language called “Shelta” by academics and “Gammon” by themselves) held weekly meetings that alternated: one week it was open to the Travellers’ buffer supporters, and the next week restricted to Travellers only. I was allowed to attend the Travellers-only meetings.
I was impartial because I thought both sides were equally wrong. I could not understand why the Travellers felt they had a right to camp wherever they pleased, nor could I understand why the settled people wouldn’t let them. I was enlightened with regard to the first point by a lecture from the “King of the Irish Gypsies”, as Pops Johnny Connors introduced himself to me, on the subject of Romanistan.
I had never heard of Pops Johnny, but the news that he was expected to turn up at a Travellers-only Minceir Misli meeting created a stir of excitement among the half-dozen or so gathered one evening at a church facility. They brought me up to speed with tales of his derring-do in frustrating the authorities’ efforts to evict Travellers from sites: for example, removing the wheels of caravans, and after they were craned out of the field, replacing the wheels and towing them back in through a rear gate.
Suddenly, this mythic superhero appeared in the doorway of the small room – medium height, aged about 40, casually clean and neat, feet confidently planted on the floor with the air of a man used to receiving respect. He sniffed the air dramatically and complained, “I smell a buffer.”
When my presence was sufficiently explained, Johnny told me he was the King of the Irish Gypsies, then said he wasn’t really: he was vice-president of the World Gypsy Congress. He asked me if I had ever heard of “Romanistan”. I said I hadn’t. We were standing near a large, heavy, old oak table on which lay the secretary’s notebook and pen for the minutes of the meeting. The secretary sat in a chair next to the table. Johnny spoke as if he were addressing a large audience.
“Romanistan means … would you mind moving your pen and paper, young man, I’m going to pound my hand on the table in a moment … Romanistan means that, because I am standing here” – at this point Johnny’s hand crashed down on the desk – “I have the right to stand here.”
Fifteen words and a theatrical gesture instantly made the Travellers’ position crystal clear. A basic tenet of Natural Law – also known as Divine Law, the Law of God and International Law – states that everyone has a right to exclusively occupy whatever territory they have a use for, while they are using it. When they cease occupying or using it, they lose the right to exclude others from using it. Travellers apply that dictum to untilled private fields and roadway verges.
Until the middle of the 20th century, Travellers had a role in society and were welcomed by buffers when they arrived in a community on their semi-annual migrations. They brought news and provided a bit of colour, the tinkers mended pots and pans, the craftspeople sold clothes pegs and other items, and they were invited into people’s homes for a cup of tea. One of the arguments I heard against the Travellers during the By-pass dispute was that, lacking convenient bathing facilities, they stank. I asked a buffer woman why that wasn’t an objection back in the old days.
“Sure, we all stank then.”
For one of my weekly columns on jobs in The Irish Press, I interviewed Sister Antoinette, who had joined a teaching order but found teaching unfulfilling, not challenging enough. So with permission from her order, she took a position as a social worker in Dublin serving the needs of the most neglected of the underclasses, the Travellers, who occupy the lowest rung on the social ladder.
In my interviews, besides getting a description of what the job entailed I always asked why the person took it on. This was Antoinette’s explanation of how she found fulfilment in her new occupation:
“It is the most Christian thing you can do – entering into the human struggle with all its pain and suffering. It’s what Christ did.”
In the 1980s, a workmate of mine was constantly singing a song that was popular at the time that went, “Drop-kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life.” I thought it an odd selection for him, since he was a professed atheist. I asked him why he liked the song, in view of his unbelief. He said, well, he thought someday he might come to believe in God.
He said, “Do you remember when the Americans evacuated Vietnam, and people were being pushed off helicopters so they could take off? I saw a film of it on the news on television, and I’ll never forget the look on the face of one man as he was being pushed off the helicopter. If I ever believe in God, it will be because of the look on that man’s face.”
I can’t sing. I told that to friends visiting me when I lived in Avoca, County Wicklow, and we popped in to Mick Cullen’s no-name pub up the hill in Redcross, where locals and others sang their party pieces.
“Nonsense,” one of them said. “Everyone can sing.”
I was called on to perform one of the three songs I can sort of sing-talk my way through, and at the end, the friend said, “Golly, Richard. I didn’t know you couldn’t sing.”
Nevertheless, “Amazing Grace” has relatively few notes that are fairly close together, except that high one, and so when I found myself in a pub in Killarney at a Pan Celtic Festival surrounded by members of a Welsh choral group singing “Amazing Grace” I joined in.
At the end, I turned to the Welshman next to me and said, “Tell me honestly, did I hit the right notes?”
He reflected for a moment and said charitably, “Quite a few of them.”
Sonny Terry (1911-1986) and Brownie McGhee (1915-1996) were the epitome of authentic down-and-dirty folk blues. They performed as a duo from 1942 until shortly before Sonny’s death. One of their last gigs was in Dublin. Sonny sang and played blues harp (harmonica) in a whoop-and-holler style. Wikipedia cryptically comments: “Terry played Campdown Races to the plow horses which improved the efficiency of farming in the area.” Sonny was blind due to a childhood injury, though Brownie claimed, “He can spot a good-looking woman a block away.” Brownie contracted polio as a child, resulting in one leg remaining markedly shorter than the other. The image of Brownie hobbling on to the stage, leading Sonny, has always stayed with me.
Dave Ellis was not a musician. His instrument of choice was a tape recorder. He was a master organiser and one of the fixers for my folk music radio programme on WQRS-FM in Detroit. About 1962, Sonny and Brownie played a concert in Detroit, and Dave arranged for an interview on my show. Brownie had expressed interest in recording the Billie Holiday perennial favourite “God Bless the Child” and wanted to meet the composer, Arthur Herzog Jr. (1900-1983), who lived in Detroit, to ask his permission. Dave made it happen.
We gathered in Arthur’s hotel apartment after the interview, warmly welcomed by Arthur and his gracious wife, Bunny. The credits for “God Bless the Child” normally say “Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.”, but that’s not the full story, as Arthur explained.
It was unusual for a white man to be the piano accompanist for a black singer in the 1930s, but Arthur and Billie got on together. During one rehearsal, things were not going well musically for Billie, and she exclaimed in exasperation, “Oh, God bless the child.”
Arthur’s ears perked up, and he asked her what the expression meant. She said that once during an argument over money, her mother (sources differ) said, “God bless the child that’s got his own.” Arthur made it into a song and gave half ownership to Billie for her to record it. The song has been covered by innumerable musicians since the 1942 release of her version, which received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1976.
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ biggest hit was their first song, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”, 1956, written by Frankie. He was 13 at the time. When the song went to number one, they were invited to sing it on The Frankie Laine Show, their first tv appearance.
In his introduction, Laine asked jokingly, “What does a 13-year-old boy know about love?”
Lymon said, “I’ve been falling in love since I was only five, but I’ve been a fool about it since I was eleven.”
It wasn’t long before Frankie’s voice broke, and while he was still a fine singer he no longer had that unique sound that had temporarily shot him to stardom. I was working as resident poet at the Tantrum coffee house in Detroit when Frankie was hired to perform for a few nights. We were both 19 and became friends, but it was sad to see him desperately trying to make a comeback, singing, dancing and playing the drums, after losing that star quality. He died of a heroin overdose at the age of 25.
Diana Ross’ cover of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” is on the 1981 album of the same name and is included on Love & Life: The Very Best of Diana Ross, 2001. She sounds remarkably like Frankie, but the backing is quite different.
Country singer Travis Tritt’s 1991 “Here’s a Quarter” is a savage response to a cheating girlfriend’s request to make up.
You say you were wrong to ever leave me alone
Now you’re sorry, you’re lonesome and scared
And you say you’d be happy if you could just come back home
Well, here’s a quarter, call someone who cares.
Call someone who’ll listen and might give a damn
Maybe one of your sordid affairs
Don’t you come round here handing me none of your lies
Here’s a quarter, call someone who cares.
Wikipedia comments: “When Travis would play this song live, fans would often throw quarters on stage, many hitting him.”
Patsy Cline (1932-1963) was my introduction to country music with her breakthrough cross-over pop-country “Walkin’ After Midnight” in 1957. It’s now considered a country classic. Then “I Fall to Pieces” topped the country chart and crossed over to the pop chart as number 12. In 1961 she was seriously injured when she was thrown through the windscreen in a head-on collision and nearly died. While still recovering, she recorded her second cross-over success, “Crazy”, which hit the country chart at number 2 and the pop chart at 9 and was later voted number one of the Greatest Juke Box Hits of All Time, with “I Fall to Pieces” at number 17. I’m proud that some of my nickels would have contributed to that score.
I met her the following year, when she had just begun touring again wearing a headband and heavy makeup to conceal the facial scars, and asked her why she didn’t cross over permanently to pop, since it was much more profitable than country.
“When you have a pop hit, the people forget about you after a few weeks. When you have a country hit, it’s a hit forever. My country fans are true to me, and I’ll stay true to them.”
That echoes the way she thanked the audience for their get-well support after her first performance following the accident: “Right at the very time I needed you the most, you came through with the flying-est colors. And I just want to say you’ll just never know how happy you made this ol’ country gal.”
She died in a plane crash in 1963 at the age of 30. Her influence on other female country singers and her songs’ continued popularity confirm that she was right to remain true to her country fans and her roots.
The introduction to this story was told to me by a friend of Bobby McGee. Kris Kristofferson was still an aspiring country singer-songwriter when he turned up at Dot Records in Nashville for an appointment with an executive. While he was waiting to be seen, he chatted up the attractive receptionist.
“What’s your name, little lady?”
“That’s a right pretty name. Someone ought to write a song about it.”
So he did.
“Me and Bobby McGee” was recorded in 1970 by Roger Miller and later by several other artists, but the most popular version was by blues singer Janis Joplin. It’s a blues song, though not in the traditional blues style and tempo, and she didn’t like it. Kristofferson managed to persuade her to record a demo tape (after having an affair with her). Accompanying herself on the guitar, she put her heart and soul into it, and it’s a perfect rendition, far better in my opinion than the final version on the album with the band. However, at the end of the song she trailed the plectrum dismissingly across the strings of the guitar and said, “That’s one somebody else has to take over.”
She died of an accidental heroin overdose on 4 October 1970 after recording most of the songs, including “Me and Bobby McGee”, for her third album, Pearl. The album was released in January 1971 and shot to number one on the Billboard chart and stayed there for nine weeks. “Me and Bobby McGee” went to number one on the singles chart.
Kristofferson was asked if “Me and Bobby McGee” was a country song.
He said, “If it sounds like a country song, that’s what it is: it’s a country song.”
“The Wild Side of Life”, made popular in 1952 by country star Hank Thompson, contains the line: “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels.” Later the same year, Kitty Wells brought out the answer song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”, which went to number one in the country charts and stayed for six weeks, despite being banned by the Grand Ole Opry and the NBC network for being “suggestive”. It outsold “The Wild Side of Life” and made her a star.
It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song
Too many times married men think they’re still single
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong
I met Bill in Key West in the 1970s, where he was working as a house painter and all-round handyman. Alben William Barkley Truitt (1933-2003), to give his full handle, was a grandson of Alben Barkley, vice-president under Harry Truman from 1949 to 1953. On 23 October 1968, Bill hijacked a Cessna 177 from Key West to Cuba, one of a flurry of such Florida-Cuba and Cuba-Florida incidents in the 1960s. He was arrested on landing, thrown into prison, and threatened with execution as a suspected spy. As he put it, “I kissed my ass goodbye.”
However, political strings were pulled in Washington, and he was released. On his arrival in the US, he was sentenced to 20 years each for air piracy and kidnapping and thrown in a federal penitentiary. He served only a nominal amount of time. I asked Bill why he did it.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time” was his lame excuse. I can’t understand how he thought the act would solve the financial and domestic problems that were plaguing him.
The experience turned out to be life-changing. A prison mate was Don Juan Tejerino, who Bill said was the inspiration for the Mexican shaman Don Juan Matus in Carlos Castaneda’s series of books about Yaqui mysticism and magic practices, which were presented as anthropological research but later revealed to be fiction based to some extent on native traditions. What Bill learned in conversations with Don Juan revealed a separate reality – the title of Castaneda’s second book – and redirected him into a more spiritual way of living.
When I knew him, he radiated peace and wisdom. Perhaps he was unconsciously impelled by a higher power to hijack the plane, and that’s the real reason he did it.
The Key West City Commission announced that they were going to vote at the next meeting on a proposed $5 licence fee “to permit” people to conduct porch and yard sales. Solares Hill, the monthly newspaper where I was associate editor and main reporter, opposed the fee, arguing that we were already permitted to hold the sales because there was no law against it. I attended the meeting as part of my job. The room was unusually full.
The Commissioners went through the agenda. The licence fee was Item 4. They disposed of Item 3 and passed on to Item 5. An audience member stood up and asked, “What happened to Item 4 about the porch sale licence?”
One of the Commissioners admitted sheepishly, “We decided it was a hot potato and so we dropped it.”
There was about two inches of accumulated dirt next to the curb in the street in front of my house, because the street cleaner couldn’t clean there because of parked cars. I went to City Hall to ask why parking couldn’t be prohibited for a brief period once a week or so to allow the machine to reach the curb. I was shuffled from one department to another and back again, looking for an answer, until I was deemed too much of a nuisance and physically ejected from the building by the city manager. It was the inspiration for what became a regular column in the paper: “The City Hall Shuffle”.
Until I was declared persona non grata for some of my articles, I was allowed to ride along with the city police on their night patrols. I have the highest respect for an honest cop, and the ones I accompanied were the salt of the earth. They welcomed me as at least some sort of backup if they got into trouble.
Officer X stopped a car for a minor traffic violation on the main street. Standing on the sidewalk while he discussed the matter with the driver, I noticed a sign in the window of the bar across the street: “Topless Dancing”. When the officer finished with the driver, I said, “I thought topless dancing was illegal.”
“What topless dancing?”
“At that bar across the street.”
“What bar across the street?”
Well, mostly honest.
A city ordinance prohibited sleeping in a car. This was mainly to discourage people without enough money for a hotel room – described as “scumbags” by a City Commissioner – from staying in Key West. A cop discovered a man sleeping in a car wearing nothing but blue lady’s knickers. He told me that when he asked him why he was sleeping in the car in knickers, the man replied in an English accent, “I had to leave England in a hurry.”
When I announced that I was running for mayor, I was told that word spread around the city like wildfire: Who the hell is Richard Marsh? Newspaper readers don’t seem to notice by-lines.
The candidates, including the incumbent mayor, Sonny “The Real” McCoy, were invited to appear on local television to promote themselves. City Hall, which contained the police station, fire station and jail, had ferocious air conditioning. Anyone who spent a night in jail came out with a cold. Air conditioning creates a vortex of hot air above a building, and I pointed out that the turkey buzzards circling around City Hall indicated that something was rotten in the government. It got a laugh.
My parents had moved to Key West, and my mother was in the audience. She turned to the woman sitting beside her and said, “That’s my son. Isn’t he brilliant?”
The woman replied, “I don’t think so. My son is Sonny McCoy.”
When I interviewed politicians, I quoted them exactly and then looked up the laws they were violating and quoted the law exactly, hanging them with their own words. It made me unpopular. One evening I encountered Mayor McCoy on the main street being photographed for an interview in the national People Magazine. I said, “Sonny, why don’t you give me interviews any more?”
“Because every time I give you an interview you find some new reason to call me a son of a bitch.”
It was at least an honest answer.
Dorothy Raymer was a genuinely outrageous and audacious character in a town largely populated by major and minor eccentrics. She was beloved by all who knew her and spoilt rotten as a result. In her book Key West Collection, which features local characters, she neglected to include herself. She wrote an entertainment column for The Key West Citizen and was fondly known as the paper’s “deaf music critic”. She had lost her hearing in childhood, one ear damaged in a fall from a horse and the other from an infection, and wore two large hearing aids in her ample “bazooms”, as she called them. She didn’t drive, so friends with cars took her to music venues on Friday and Saturday nights to review the acts for her column the following week. I was her frequent escort. This was in the 1970s. She was in her 60s at the time, and I was in my 40s.
One evening we were at a country music bar. The band played a new song by Billie Jo Spears, “The Blanket on the Ground”. In it, the woman invites her husband to come with her to the river “where our sweet love first began … and lay the blanket on the ground” to boost their sex life. Dorothy’s primitive hearing aids distorted sounds from a speaker, and the lyrics were unintelligible to her, so I echoed the singer line by line across the postage-stamp-size table between us.
When I came to the line “now you know you still excite me,” Dorothy cupped her hands behind her bazooms to focus her hearing aids on my voice and said, “What?” I repeated the line, and she said, “What?” I shouted, “Don’t you know you still excite me.” People at the surrounding tables stared at us. Dorothy nodded, smiling coquettishly.
I don’t embarrass easily, but when Dorothy loudly commented on a Latin gigolo-type man-spreading in a quiet, intimate venue, and “that dumb blonde ogling him and her stupid hillbilly husband oblivious”, I warned her that the group at the next venue would be going on break, which I knew she would take as a personal insult. We skedaddled.
David Loovis’ first novel, Try for Elegance, a slim bittersweet boy-meets-and-loses girl romance set in New York, was published in 1959 to mildly positive reviews. It was, in fact, a roman a clef about his affair with Gore Vidal. (Loovis later became a leading writer on gay life.) He then came to Key West and spent a year living with Dorothy and writing The Last of the Southern Winds, which was published in 1961 to mildly positive reviews. The main character is Carl, 30ish like Loovis.
The second major character is Charlotte, “a deaf, untidy, aging, attractive woman of forty odd who has run through 4 husbands and many affairs” (Kirkus reviews 1/1/61), a perfect description of Dorothy. She was married four times.
(Her friend Tennessee Williams, a part-time Key West resident, stole her third husband, who she dubbed “the two-way plug”. He also replicated her in his absurd play The Gnädiges Fräulein, set in Cocaloony Key “at the southernmost point in the Disunited Mistakes” – obviously Key West, which proudly regarded itself as “The Land of Fruits and Nuts”. A character with Dorothy’s mannerisms is a gossip columnist with the local paper, as Dorothy once was, and carries an oversize “Dorothy bag” like hers. Dorothy and I attended the Key West premiere; she was delighted with the caricature.)
Both Charlotte and Dorothy were wide-eyed and quite overweight – when Charlotte gets into Carl’s car it sags alarmingly, like Dorothy and my Volkswagen. Charlotte is part owner of the hotel of the title. Dorothy worked part-time at a similar establishment. Charlotte seemed to be a carbon copy of Dorothy, so I was intrigued by a particular incident in the book. I put it to Dorothy:
“In one scene, Charlotte and Carl are in bed having sex. Carl says, ‘You know, while we’re doing this I’m thinking about …’ and he names a female friend. Charlotte gets out of bed and wraps herself in a robe and goes into the kitchen. Carl hears the sound of cutlery and closes and locks the bedroom door. Charlotte tries the door and then goes out to the front porch and cuts through the window screen of the bedroom with a butcher knife and stabs him in the shoulder. Carl flees naked and bleeding down the street with Charlotte in hot pursuit before the police intervene. Since Charlotte bears a strong resemblance to you, I was wondering if something like that really happened.”
“Yes, and isn’t that a terrible thing to say to a person at a time like that. I only stuck the knife partway in. The cop asked me what happened, and I told him, and he said, ‘Lady, I don’t blame you one bit.’ There were no charges.”
The Balloon Man was a tall, stout, jolly man with blue eyes that twinkled behind old-fashioned rimless glasses. He had curly reddish hair and beard and a childlike toothy grin. One day, I came across him near the town centre inflating balloons halfway from a helium tank, then bringing them into full bloom with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A flock of balloons was tethered with lengths of coloured yarn to a tree, where they jostled like children at a bus stop.
We were discussing the psychological effects of balloons on people – how, like stars and church steeples, they direct the eye and the spirit upwards – when an old woman known only as the Shopping Cart Lady approached timidly. She slept in doorways at night, and by day she plodded the streets wearily with her head down, pushing all her worldly possessions in the shopping trolley.
She looked up at the tall Balloon Man with wide, wondering childlike eyes.
“There’s something I always wanted to know,” she said shyly. “When you carry all those balloons at once, what keeps you from just floating up into the sky with them?”
The Balloon Man cupped a hand to her ear and whispered secretively, “I wear special magic shoes.” He lifted one of his size 14s and pointed to it. “They keep me firmly attached to the ground.”
“Oh,” she nodded wisely. “I see.”
“They’re lovely balloons,” she added.
“Would you like one?” the Balloon Man asked.
“Oh, I couldn’t afford it,” she said.
“Which colour would you prefer?” he persisted.
She carefully selected an independent-looking blue one. The Balloon Man separated it from the flock and ceremoniously tied it to the handle of the shopping trolley.
Without the Balloon Man’s special magic shoes to keep her firmly attached to the ground, the old woman stepped lightly as a teenager down the street, her head raised high to watch the balloon dancing above her. She seemed to be imitating the balloon’s efforts to reach as near to Heaven as possible, while being buffeted one way and another by the winds of this world.
I know it sounds makey-up, but it happened just like that, and I wrote down the dialogue word for word before I left the Balloon Man.
I met John Knowles, author of the ground-breaking coming-out novel A Separate Peace (1959), in Key West. He had just finished writing Spreading Fires (1974), which is about madness. I asked him why he wrote fiction. He said it was to try to explain the world to himself.
Horse Racing and Bull Riding
Irishman Barney Curley, notorious gambler, failed bookmaker and mediocre trainer of run-of-the-mill horses, pulled off the Yellow Sam Coup in 1975, netting him £300,000 – about €2 million in today’s money – on a £15,000 stake. It was fiendishly clever but totally legal. His duping of the bookies has made him a popular hero, and the story is a frequent offering on Irish television.
“It was there to be done – and it worked,” he explained. As to why it was successful, he gave due credit to Him Above: “It’s the safest bet there is. Give Him one good work, and He’ll always give you back ten.”
Source: Curley’s autobiography Giving a Little Back (1998), the proceeds of which go to Direct Aid for Africa.
A bookie owned a useless horse. He entered it in a race that had only two other runners in order to pick up a bit of place money, and he offered an attractive price on it to entice chancers. An old man came along and placed a substantial bet on the nag, which, to the bookie’s surprise, won handily.
When the man collected his winnings, the bookie said, “I own that horse, and on form it had no chance of winning. Why did you back it?”
“I own the other two.”
Danny “Do nothing” Wright was a morning outrider at Tropical Park race course in Florida. Mounted on a speedy horse, his job was to catch squirrelly Thoroughbreds that had run away with their exercise riders or dumped them and were galloping loose, which was a danger to themselves and others on the track. I would often see him and his horse drowsing in the warm sunshine or ambling along the outer rail with Danny picking and eating the cherry tomatoes that grew there in abundance.
One day, a rider’s mount took the bit between his teeth and careered around the one-mile track several times before tiring and slowing to a walk. When he arrived where Danny had posted himself the rider demanded, “Why didn’t you come and grab my horse when he was running away with me?”
Danny’s response: “Oh, I get to thinkin’ and ponderin’ and just sort of drift off.”
As a freelance groom I took a horse to the paddock on a day when it was raining so heavily you couldn’t see more than a few horse lengths. That meant, of course, that the race was invisible to the stewards and their cameras. My trainer’s jockey lodged an objection following the race. He accused another jockey of holding his horse’s saddle towel, thereby slowing down his horse while giving the offending jockey’s horse an advantage. The offending jockey admitted to the stewards that he had held the saddle towel, but he said he had noticed the saddle was slipping, and he was only trying to help.
A worker can be jealous of the main tool of his trade, and when I arrived at the barn at Tropical Park early one morning to discover my favourite pitchfork missing, I was furious. Minutes lost in the morning are difficult to make up in the rhythm of cleaning and tacking up a horse for exercise and mucking out the stall while the horse is out on the track and cleaning and tacking up the next horse and preparing the bath water and leg wraps for the returning horse. I found a fork with a split handle and used it all morning, grumbling to anyone who would listen.
Someone suggested I check the next barn, where another trainer had a string of horses. That trainer had been seen chasing Margaret the Pony Boy around his barn with a pitchfork until Margaret ran to my barn and grabbed a fork to defend himself. I found my fork and the explanation. But first, about Margaret.
In those pre-gay-friendly days of the 1970s, Margaret was tolerated even among conservative race trackers in spite of his sexual orientation, because he was an excellent pony boy with a strong right arm to control the feisty and brainless Thoroughbreds that he led with or without riders around the track for exercise or to the starting gate at the races. You could see him watering off (filling the horses’ water buckets) late at night dressed incongruously in his short baby-doll-sleeved pink nightie. The ponies – not really ponies but hefty stock horses with a patient attitude – were tougher than the Thoroughbreds, and even the pony girls were formidable.
Tangent. A group of us were sitting around a tackroom one lazy non-racing afternoon chewing the fat. Among us was Jerry Smith, a handsome former rodeo bull rider whose one-ton mount had flipped over backwards in the chute and landed on him, breaking his back and turning him into a hunchback. He was now an exercise rider. During a discussion about the ban on women on race tracks at night because they were assumed to be prostitutes, Jerry stated, “I ain’t never paid for it yet and I ain’t never gonna.” Jerry was prominently seated on a hay bale in the back of the tackroom, when the doorway darkened and Sue the Pony Girl, mounted on her pony, peered into the relative darkness and asked, “Has anyone seen Jerry Smith?”
We all turned to look at Jerry, but he had completely vanished. Sue was told we didn’t know where he was, which was true enough.
But back to Margaret. The story eventually emerged that he had announced to the trainer that he was feeling a bit under the weather and asked him, “Do you think my period is coming on?”
The trainer’s tolerance proved to be relative, and he exploded in a red rage, picked up the nearest pitchfork and replied to Margaret’s question with action.
Rodeo bull riding has been called “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports”. It’s like bullfighting, but the bull usually wins. Almost half of the human injuries in rodeo are from bull riding. Animal injuries have been calculated at 0.047%.
You mount a nearly one-ton bareback bull that has been selected for its ability to buck, spin and sunfish. You hold on with one leather-gloved hand to a rope tied around the beast where a cinch would be on a horse, and stay there for eight seconds while raking its sides with sharp spurs. If you’re still on when the buzzer sounds, your “dismount” is a more or less controlled fall and rarely graceful. Both bull and rider are scored. There’s good money in it for the winners, but even the best pick up serious injuries. Of the 309 contenders who tried, none of them managed to last the full time on the champion bull Red Rock.
At a small-town rodeo in Florida, I noticed a stocky, strutting young woman of the sort that you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley and would address as “Miss” – or even “Sir” – if you did. She was entered in the ladies’ bull riding event, where smallish, immature and slightly safer bulls were used. When the chute was opened for her, instead of bucking and twisting as the full-size bulls do, this one ran in a straight line down the arena, a notoriously dangerous move. The woman screamed like a girl the whole length of the journey until she bailed out just before the beast crashed into the retaining wall at the end.
Driving through Indiana, I stopped at a gas station to refuel. As I was filling my tank, a big macho Oldsmobile pulled in, and the driver got out. He was dressed like a rodeo cowboy and wore a thick leather glove on his right hand and cowboy boots with sharp-rowelled spurs. As far as I knew, we were many miles from the nearest rodeo. I suspected what the answer would be but I asked anyway: “I don’t want to seem nosy, but what do you do for a living?”
“Ah ride bulls.”
Which explains the glove and boots but not the spurs. No, on second thought, especially the spurs.
In 1978 on a visit to Cornwall, I met a Canadian dentist in Penzance who had arrived two years earlier for a one-week holiday and hadn’t gone home yet. I asked him why he stayed.
“You don’t know at the outset what the in set is and where it goes on.”
Living in Key West at the time, I understood him perfectly.
“I have found the secret of life. It is ice. The poor folks have it in the winter and the rich folks have it in the summer.”
Bat Masterson (1853-1921) was an army scout, lawman, professional gambler, buffalo hunter, civilian scout, Indian fighter, gunfighter, sheriff and journalist, eventually becoming a sportswriter on the New York Morning Telegraph. His answer to a question many people have pondered was found in his typewriter the day he died, according to Kinky Friedman’s Greenwich Killing Time.
It is believed that the wise fool Nasruddin Hodja was a real person who lived in Turkey in the 13th century. Many of the tales that have accumulated around him are also attributed to folklore characters in other countries, among them Pedro Urdemales.
While Hodja was working as a ferryman, he was crossing a river one day and fell into conversation with a scholar. Hodja made a grammatical mistake.
“Have you ever studied grammar?” asked the scholar.
“No,” said Hodja. “I’ve never had the time.”
“Then half your life has been wasted,” the scholar declared pedantically.
A few minutes later, Hodja asked the scholar, “Have you ever learned to swim?”
“No,” said the scholar. “I’ve never had the time.”
“Then all your life has been wasted,” said Hodja. “The boat is sinking.”
Hodja was walking down the street one day, followed by a crowd of children. He suspected the children would try to steal his shoes as soon as he took them off when he sat down to rest. So he stopped beneath a tree, put his shoes in his pockets, and climbed up into the tree.
“Nasruddin Hodja,” the children said, “why do you take your shoes with you to climb the tree? Why don’t you leave them on the ground?”
“How do you know,” said Hodja, “that when I reach the top of the tree, my road doesn’t go on from there?”
On opening the door to his storeroom, the owner of a hacienda saw Chilean trickster Pedro Urdemales calmly filling a sack with wheat. Pedro noticed him, but he continued with his task as if it were nothing unusual. The gentleman watched him for a while and then said, “What are you doing, man?”
“I don’t answer nosy people,” said Pedro coolly.
The gentleman let it go for the moment. Pedro finished filling the sack, tied the mouth closed, and hoisted it on to his shoulder without glancing at the owner.
“Well, my friend,” said the gentleman sarcastically, “I hope that when you make tortillas you’ll let me have one.”
“I don’t give to beggars,” Pedro replied as he walked out the door nonchalantly.
In the 1990 film Pretty Woman, prostitute Vivian (Julia Roberts) rejects the offer of wealthy Robert (Richard Gere) to support her so she can leave her street life, because it doesn’t accord with her fairy tale dream in which a knight in shining armour rescues her. At the end, acrophobic Robert climbs a fire escape in a final attempt to persuade her.
“So what happens after he climbed up the tower and rescues her?” he asks.
“She rescues him right back.”
A happy ending ensues.
Clan chief Sir Gregor MacGregor (1925-2003) was a brigadier in the British army.
“MacGregor was passing in front of the brigade band when his mount noisily broke wind. ‘Sorry about that, Brigade of Drums,’ he called out. ‘That’s all right, sir,’ a piper retorted. ‘We thought it was the horse.’”
From The Daily Telegraph obituary, quoted in The Sunday Times 20/4/03.
“The oat is a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland generally supports the people.” Samuel Johnson
Scots’ rejoinder: “Aye, that’s why you have the best horses and we have the best people.”
Socrates asked the prophetess Diotima of Mantinea, “Is there anything between ignorance and knowledge?”
Her reply: “Belief.”
Diogenes the Cynic (d. 323 BC), famed for his search for an honest man and living naked in a tub, was at a dinner given by a wealthy man. Another guest, infuriated by his behaviour, threw bones at him, calling him a dog. Diogenes’ response was to go to the man, lift his leg, and urinate on him.
Pericles (495-429 BC): “I was the same at your age.”
Alcibiades: “It’s a shame I didn’t know you when you were at your best!”
A Protestant friend who was not familiar with the rules of the Catholic Church was surprised to see a priest drinking an alcoholic beverage at a public function.
“Are priests allowed to drink?” he asked.
“Sure. As long as we don’t get pissy-ass drunk in public.”
Bessie Braddock MP to Winston Churchill: “Winston, you are drunk, and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk.”
Churchill: “Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”
George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill: “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend – if you have one.”
Churchill’s reply: “Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second – if there is one.”
Reasons to Vote for Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide (2017) by conservative pundit Michael J. Knowles consists of a table of contents and a bibliography, with the rest of the 266 pages blank. It reached number one on the Amazon best-seller list. After Knowles praised Donald Trump on Fox & Friends, the President recommended the book as “a great book for your reading enjoyment”.
“Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I’ll waste no time reading it.”
“I have read your book and much like it.”
“This book fills a much-needed gap.”
Moses Hadas (1900-1966), American scholar
“I enjoyed your book. Who wrote it for you?”
“Darling, I’m so glad you liked it. Who read it to you?”
Stephen Spender told this story. He met an American woman at a cocktail party and introduced himself. She obviously didn’t hear his surname clearly. She said, “You’re only the second person I’ve ever met called Stephen. The other one was the poet Stephen Spender, but he’s dead now, you know.”
Wilbert (Bill) Snow was known as “the Maine Coast Poet”. In the 1960s, when Bill and his wife, Jeanette, were in their seventies, they were enjoying their retirement at a pace that would have driven most working people into the ground. They were travelling around to universities in the United States, where Bill lectured on poetry and read his own.
Bill’s best-known poem is called “Conflict”, about a boy born in a seacoast town, where –
The sunburned rocks and beaches
Inveigle him to stay;
While every wave that breaches
Is a nudge to be up and away.
In the early years, Bill was a maverick university professor who didn’t always conform to university policy, and so he often found himself between teaching positions. He spent some time counting reindeer in Alaska.
I was riding in the back seat one day when Bill was driving with Jeanette through Detroit in rush hour traffic. He was having trouble changing lanes to make a right turn. Jeanette watched for openings in the traffic, and when she spotted one she would say, “All right, Bill, you can go now.”
By the time Bill looked around to double-check, the gap would be filled. After this happened several times, Jeanette said in exasperation, “Oh, Bill, you’ve lost your opportunity again.”
Perhaps remembering the reindeer, Bill said calmly, “I’ve lost a lot of those in this life. Just keep looking.”
Someone mentioned the wrinkles on Mick Jagger’s face. Jagger said they weren’t wrinkles but laughter lines. George Melly countered: “Surely nothing could be that funny.”
The comment made The Independent’s “Quotes of the Year” list for August 1994.
A member of Parliament to Disraeli: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.”
“That depends, Sir,” said Disraeli, “whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”
The Earl of Sandwich predicted John Wilkes would die either on the gallows or of the pox. Wilkes retorted, “That would depend, sir, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”
Lord Sandwich: “Which do you think will happen to you first, the experience of a certain disease, or an intimate acquaintance with the gallows?”
“Why,” rejoined the Comedian, ”that depends upon circumstances, and they are these: whether I prefer embracing your Lordship’s mistress or your principles.”
Lord Sandwich and Samuel Foote, London periodical The European Magazine in 1784.
Also: Percival Stockdale, The Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Percival Stockdale (1809).
Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was a dramatist, actor, comic and theatre manager.
“Because it’s there.”
George Mallory (d. 1924) on being asked why he wanted to reach the summit of Everest.
Two mountain lions on the Texas-New Mexico border were discussing where they would spend the winter. One decided on Texas and the other New Mexico. They agreed to meet in the spring to report the results. When they met again, the one that wintered in Texas was thin and feeble. The other one said, “You look terrible. What were you eating all winter?”
“How did you hunt them?”
“I laid up in a tree and when one came underneath I let out a roar and jumped on him.”
“Ah, no. That’s not the way you hunt Texans. When you roar you scare the shit out of them, and when you jump on them you knock the wind out of them, and there ain’t nothin’ left but boots and buckles.”
Daniel Boone was asked towards the end of his life if he ever got lost, bushwacking through the wilderness. He answered that he’d never been lost but had been “bewildered for days at a time.”
Bob Kanegis, American storyteller, on the Storytell email list.
A man met an elderly Native American who was reputed to have a prodigious memory and decided to test him.
“What did you have for breakfast ten years ago on this date?”
The man was impressed. Years later he came across the same Native man and greeted him with “How.”
A sailboat skipper was asked how he managed to ram the committee boat at the start of a Martha’s Vineyard race.
He grumbled: “Ain’t nobody bloody perfect.”
An Oklahoma man offered me a cup of coffee and asked me how I wanted it.
“Strong enough to float a horseshoe,” I said.
“Ain’t no such thing as strong coffee, just weak people,” he responded approvingly.
In 1959, the Tantrum coffee house in Detroit hired me as resident poet. It was my first 9-5 job: 9pm to 5am. I was well qualified. Like most 19-year-olds I had written a few poems, and I was an English major at university, where for a time I presented a programme on the radio station consisting of poems I had unearthed in obscure books and verses written by friends. During my residency I added to my repertoire, including selections from the Old Testament book the Song of Songs, until I had three 20-minute sets memorised.
I had worked in theatre and was accustomed to varieties of skin colour and sexual orientation. The Tantrum employees and customers were a rainbow of hues, but a few days after I started there I noticed something unusual about the other proportion. I asked Smokey, an effeminate Cherokee waiter from Georgia, “Is everyone who works here a homosexual?”
With a flip of a wrist, he replied, “You’d be the best person to answer that question.”
The legal drinking age in Detroit at the time was 21, and I soon realised that the tee-total Tantrum was the most popular hangout for underage gays.
Tangent. Both Jewish and Christian commentators claim that the Song of Songs (also Song of Solomon or Canticles) is an allegory of the relationship between God and His people. But the content is all about the Bride and Bridegroom praising each other’s bodies, with himself repeatedly focusing on her breasts.
Thy two breasts like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies. Till the day break and the shadows retire, I will go to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.
My Bible notes: “Thy two breasts: to be understood mystically of the love of God and the love of our neighbour …” The ladies easily picked up the metaphors “mountain of myrrh” and “hill of frankincense” in my recitation of Solomon’s verses, frequently by request, but I didn’t detect any recognition of allegory or mysticism.
No reputable English usage authority has ever said it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. That doesn’t stop pedants pointing out supposed errors. A memorable rejoinder is: “This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.” It was first published in The Strand Magazine and is often falsely attributed to Winston Churchill.
A woman mentioned a book she had been reading to her husband. He said: “What did you bring that book I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?”
This reply in “Silver Blaze” is one of the most famous in literature.
Inspector Gregory: “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
If love is the answer, could you please rephrase the question?
Lily Tomlin, American actress and comedienne
My 90-year-old grandfather was seated in the front row at an evening show at a Catskill resort in upper New York State, when a famous comedian overheard him complain that his knee hurt.
The comedian (I think it was Joey Adams) said, “What do you expect? You’re 90 years old.”
Oscar replied, “Yes. But my other knee is 90 years old and it doesn’t hurt.”
Judith Heineman, American storyteller
A young woman researching longevity visited an old folks’ home. She met a man with grey hair walking with a cane and asked, “What is the secret of your longevity?”
“Milk. I have milk for breakfast, milk for lunch and milk for dinner.”
“And how old are you?”
The next man she encountered was white-haired and walked with two canes.
“What is the secret of your longevity?”
“Whiskey. I have whiskey for breakfast, whiskey for lunch and whiskey for dinner.”
“How old are you?”
She asked the same question of a man who was wrinkled and stooped over walking feebly with a Zimmer frame.
“Sex. I have sex after breakfast, sex after lunch and sex after dinner.”
“And how old are you?”
Attracta Dooley from County Offaly
A Secretary of the Treasury was a renowned skinflint and thoroughly despised by his colleagues for constantly cadging money. He asked one of them, “Can you lend me a nickel? I want to call a friend.”
Reply: “Here’s a dime. Call all your friends.”
Attributed to sports writer Tom Meany (1903-1964).
I don’t remember what the question was, but a Basque student of mine, Izaskun, replied poetically, “Every moment isn’t the same, and every moment has a different music.” Another student defined a cliff as a vertical beach.
A friend’s doctor once stopped at the “Is this person mentally competent to teach school?” question on the required physical form.
“Trick question,” he quipped, “you have to be crazy to want to.”
Mary Garrett, American storyteller and former teacher, on the Storytell email list.
… [US Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo, when asked what he knew about that phone call [between Trump and the Ukrainian president], replied that he had not seen a copy of the whistleblower document that flagged it: “I haven’t seen the complaint,” he told ABC News. (Guardian online 30/9/19)
This is a typical example of ignoratio elenchi, literally “(pretended) ignorance of the matter”, that is, dodging a question by deliberately missing the point or introducing a red herring by changing the subject. He evaded the question asked – what he knew about the call – by answering a question that had not been asked: had he seen the complaint. On 2 October he admitted that he was listening in on the call.
That trick is familiar to journalists. Columnist Catherine Bennett offers satirical advice to British politicians: “Try answering a difficult question with – [First Secretary Dominic] Raab’s speciality – the response to a different one.” (Guardian online 2/5/20)
Some viewers complain that [Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain] constantly interrupts guests. “I only interrupt if the person is answering a completely different question, or what they’re saying is total waffle or is completely untrue.” (Sunday Times Magazine 10/5/20)
The answers are all out there, we just need to ask the right questions.
Behan, Brendan, After the Wake, O’Brien, 1981.
Boller, Paul F. Jr., and Ronald L. Davis, Hollywood Anecdotes, 1987.
Curley, Barney, Giving a Little Back, HarperCollinsWillow, 1998.
Doyle, Arthur Conan, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Magpie, 1993.
Fitzmaurice, Gabriel, Beat the Goatskin till the Goat Cries, Mercier, 2006.
Friedman, Kinky, Greenwich Killing Time, Morrow, 1986; Faber & Faber, 1997.
Glassie, Henry, ed., Irish Folk Tales, Pantheon, NYC, 1985.
Hale, Leslie, John Philpot Curran: His Life and Times, Cape, London, 1958.
Loovis, David, The Last of the Southern Winds, Scribner, 1961.
Murray, Tommy, Meath Voices, Tempus/Nonsuch, 2006.
Stockdale, Percival, The Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Percival Stockdale (1809).
Timbs, John, Anecdote Lives of the Later Wits and Humourists [sic], Vol. 1, Bentley, London, 1874.
Toibín, Niall, Smile and Be a Villain, Town House, Dublin, 1995, 1997, 2000.
Vose, John D., Tales and Yarns of Glendalough and the Wicklow Hills, told to John D. Vose by Bill Fanning, Shepherd of Glendalough, published by J. D. Vose, 24 Norcliffe Rd., Blackpool, FY2 9AW. No date; c. 1995.