By Tony Deyal
Many, many years ago a type of trousers called a “Sister Boy” reached the Caribbean market. The difference between the “Sister Boy” and other pants was that it had a short, ornamental, buckled belt at the back. Seeing a schoolmate wearing one, I said to him, in the presence of the multitude waiting for the bus, “I like your sister boy!” I had to duck, both from the blow and the description of the anatomical riches of my mother which followed.
One of my neighbours incurred the wrath of her sister by responding with the typical Trinidad expression “Oh Hoh!” which threats as “You better watch your step with me you hear, oh hoh!’ The younger sister was upset and shouted at her older sister, who was in the kitchen, “Don’t ever take my money again otherwise I will deal with you, oh hoh!” The incensed big sister ran out of the kitchen armed with a large pot spoon and advanced on the younger one shouting, “Who you calling a ho?” The only response that would have made it worse would have been the mannerly, “I’m sorry you were offended when I called you a hoe. I didn’t know it was a secret.”
In Britain, politicians and insults are synonymous. They have honed and refined the art over centuries of heated debate. The best of them was Winston Churchill. When told by a member of parliament, Bessie Braddock, that he was drunk Churchill replied, “And you, madam, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning.” When Lady Astor was opposed by Churchill on the issue of women’s rights, she was so angry that she snapped, “Winston, if I were married to you I would put poison in your coffee.” He retorted immediately, “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
When famous Glasgow journalist, Harry Diamond, was a young reporter in parliament, he met Churchill in the corridor and whispered very quietly, “excuse me, sir. I hope you won’t mind me mentioning it…er….it will save you some embarrassment but your fly is open.” Churchill came back with, “my boy, there is no harm in leaving open the door of the cage when the bird is dead.”
My favourite Churchill putdown was when told by an opponent that he would either die of the “pox” or be hanged, he responded: “That depends on whether I embrace your mistress or your principles.” My final Churchill in this article is a wicked counter-punch. The famous playwright, George Bernard Shaw, invited Churchill to the first night of his newest play, enclosing two tickets: “One for yourself and one for a friend – if you have one.” Churchill wrote back, saying he couldn’t make it but asked for tickets for the second night – “if there is one.”
While most Caribbean politicians are into name-calling, and in some countries ethnic slurs and even threats, the hallmarks of international parliaments and senates are sledging and quick, lethal responses. David Lloyd George, British Liberal prime minister, once said of an opponent. “He has sat so long upon the fence that the iron has entered his soul.” He also maintained that when Herbert Samuel (another opponent) was circumcised “they threw away the wrong bit”. F.E. Smith, a former Lord High Chancellor of Britain, was taunting Lord Hewart, a writer, about the size of his stomach by asking, “What’s it to be – a boy or a girl?” Hewart shot back with, “If it’s a boy I’ll call it John. If it’s a girl, I’ll call it Mary. But if, as I suspect, it’s only wind, I’ll call it F.E. Smith.”
In the US, when Governor Adlai Stevenson, was going up against president Eisenhower one of his strong supporters reassured him, “Governor, every thinking person will be voting for you.” Stevenson countered: “Madam, that’s not enough. I need a majority.” During a debate, his opponent, Stephen Douglas, called Abraham Lincoln “two-faced”. Lincoln countered, “I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”
Also, in the US, when Reverend Edward Everett Hale was chaplain of the US Senate, he was asked if he prayed for the senators. He came up with a quick “No!” and then added, “I look at the senators and pray for the country.” This is what all of us Caribbean people should do night and day and not just restrict our prayers to senators but also include politicians and police.
I thought about this article when someone I had sent a clear, no-nonsense note about my rights, tried to embarrass me with, “You are a writer so you obviously love to write.” I immediately declared, “I am a writer and I do love to write. Unlike you, I won’t tell you what you are and what you might love to do.” I wish I could have commented like pianist/comedian Victor Borge’s about Mozart, “He was happily married but his wife wasn’t.”
Maybe I could have tried a Pierre Trudeau. When the Canadian prime minister heard that Richard Nixon insulted him, the response was, “I’ve been called worse things by better men.” US president, George Bush (Sr), got a place in “The Nasty Quote Book” with, “Being attacked on character by Governor Clinton is like being called ugly by a frog.” Some politicians are even sharper. When US senator Slade Gorton told comedian Carl Grant, “You’re a comedian, tell us a joke.” Grant quickly countered: “You’re a politician, tell us a lie.” Gorton was extremely quick on the draw with “I did when I called you a comedian.”
So what do you do when someone deliberately tries to embarrass you? You can reply, “Someday you’ll go far.” Then add, “And, I really hope you stay there.” Another useful response is, “Oh I’m sorry that the middle of my sentence interrupted the beginning of yours.” You can also try, “I’m sorry for talking while you were interrupting. Please go first.” There are a few people I would like to tell, “I am returning your nose. I found it in my business.”
However, I prefer to stick to the politicians and how well they dealt with one another. Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, said of Malcolm Fraser, the person he replaced:
“He is the cutlery man of Australian politics. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, speaks with a forked tongue, and knifes colleagues in the back.” Whenever I read something like this I am reminded of what Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright, said to his friend Whistler, the artist who had brought down the house with a truly scintillating remark. “l wish I had said that!” said Wilde. Whistler laughed and came back with, “You will, Oscar, you will!”
*Tony Deyal was last seen repeating a quote that could be true of all Caribbean politicians, “He did not care in which direction the car was travelling, so long as he remained in the driver’s seat.”