Saturday July 23, 2005
As I browse in the cluttered aisles of the Archive of British Cliché, I like from time to time to pull an exhibit down from the shelves and brood on its origins. "In this day and age", "the jury's still out", "past its sell-by date" ... how grateful one feels to the unknown benefactors who first put such expressions into our language! Here for instance is one, faded and tattered, with even a touch of mildew, suggesting it has fallen into disuse: "as the bishop said to the actress". There was a time when you could barely sit half an hour in a pub without hearing this curious tag attached to some otherwise harmless expression, as in: " 'Don't call it failure, call it deferred success', as the bishop said to the actress." No one has the slightest idea where this usage came from, or why it caught on. But now, as I replace the exhibit reverently on the shelf, I reflect that it cannot survive. Your actress has now to be described as an actor - reasonably enough in an age when we rarely talk of authoresses or poetesses or editresses. And soon the office of bishop is going to be unisex too. "As the actor said to the bishop" (gender in each case unspecified) will from then on require so much exegesis that it will vanish into oblivion - where no doubt it belongs.
· Which brings me, as chalk follows cheese, to the matter of rabbits. I read the other day of a service accessible to those who can handle text messaging that musters a squad of scholars to deal with those poxy worries that sometimes creep into one's head. For instance: how many rabbits are there in Northern Ireland? The Daily Telegraph used this question to test out the service and got its answer in a mere 11 minutes. The UK rabbit population, the oracle told them, numbered 40m. Northern Ireland accounted for 5.8% of the UK land area. Therefore Northern Ireland must have around 900,000 rabbits. As I read this claim my jaw dropped to the floor, where it bounced about with a curious clattering sound for several minutes. Are we really supposed to believe that rabbits are uniformly distributed across the UK? Are they as rife in Bayswater as Ballachulish? Have these brainboxes never heard of the concept of heteroscedasticity? Let them telephone Essex University, where there are people who have, who will probably tell them that at any given moment at least half the rabbit population of England is encamped in their grounds.
· The columnist Mark Steyn, rabbit-like, some might say, in his fecundity, has recently been denouncing "media twerps". This is a subject on which he can speak with authority. It has always been my contention that a record of making sound predictions is a mark of one's understanding, so from time to time I make a note of some of those offered by Steyn. Here are a handful: "A year from now Basra will have a lower crime rate than most London boroughs" - April 12 2003 ("Half of Basra's provincial council walked out in protest at the increasing number of assassinations and kidnappings, and poor public service" - the Guardian, the day before yesterday); "By the year's end ... Iraq will be the least ill-governed state in the Middle East" - April 4 2004; and, most characteristic of all in its blend of ignorance and arrogance: "Another six weeks of insurgency sounds about right, after which it will peter out" - December 27 2003. (By my count, 82 weeks have now elapsed since that highly paid insight.) Even in March this year he described the Iraq insurgency as "floundering". The new editor of the Sunday Telegraph seems to have dispensed with Mark Steyn. His column in the Daily, however, has in Steynian terms "petered out"; that's to say, it's still roaring on wholly unchecked.
· "At 56, he comes - as he puts it - from 'an older generation'. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave" - interview with the Tory leadership contender David Davis.
· An antiquary writes: Anent your lucubrations touching on bishops and actresses; let me assure you, buster, that if the original couple were real rather than invented, their conversation could not have occurred before the year 1660. Until then, women's parts on the stage were played by boys. "Whereas women's parts in plays have hitherto been acted by men in the habits of women ... we do permit and give leave for the time to come that all women's parts be acted by women," Charles II ordained in 1662. According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the first actress to exploit this new freedom was Margaret Hughes, as Desdemona in Othello on December 8 1660. She was the mistress not of a bishop but of one of the royals: Prince Rupert. "As the prince said to the actress" - old coffee-house pleasantry, circa 17th century.
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