Gilbert Harding’s Treasury of Insult

Gilbert Harding

When we last discussed the late great broadcasting personality Gilbert Harding we focused on how his studied rudeness was in most cases utterly defensible. He ensured that those people who annoyed him and were duly given the treatment they deserved, were the same kind of people that were likely to annoy most other thinking people. Thus he became a sort of hero to many who could only fantasise about emulating  Harding’s rudeness. 

There is a general perception today that Harding  reserved this brutal honesty for TV and radio appearances, but like so many ‘ celebrities ‘ of our own times, he added to his earnings by bringing out books that encapsulated the Harding personality. In a previous Jot we looked at a book of his musings on the inanities of everyday life. This time we are going to pick some of the best bits from Harding’s Treasury of Insult (1953), which is not so much an anthology of invective as  a distinctly superior miscellany of quotations and anecdotes from the sixteenth century to the nineteen  fifties. .

Some of the extracts are prefaced by a piece of Harding scorn. Others need no such introduction. We will begin with what we now call the ‘ hospitality sector’. Harding’s love of dining out and his attraction to pubs was almost wholly responsible for his corpulence, which led to his suddenly death in a taxi aged just 54 ?

We could start with Dr Tobias Smollett, the eighteenth century novelist:

‘The bread I eat in London is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum and bone ashes; insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution. The good people are not ignorant of this adulteration; but they prefer it to wholesome bread because it  is whiter than the meal of corn; thus they sacrifice their taste and their health, and the lives of their tender infants to a most absurd gratification…I shall conclude this catalogue of London dainties, with that table-beer, guiltless of hops and malt, vapid and nauseous; much fitter to facilitate the operation of a vomit, than to quench thirst and promote digestion…’

As Smollett pointed out, shoppers and diners knew about adulteration, but it took a German chemist, Dr Frederic Accum, to tell the whole shocking story in his classic expose, Death in the Pot (1820). Nowadays, of course, we much prefer wholemeal bread to the white loaves made by the infamous Chorleywood process that gave us ‘Mother’s Pride ‘, which though it contained none of the deleterious additives detailed by Smollett and Accum, doubtless tasted little better than eighteenth century white bread. 

According to Thomas Ingoldsby, writing a little later, French stews weren’t much better.

‘ Hot, smoking hot, On the fire was a pot

Well replenished, but really, I can’t say with what;

For, famed as the French always are for ragouts,

No creature can tell what they put in their stews,

Whether bull-frogs, old gloves, or old wigs, or old shoes.’.

Doubtless, Ingoldsby was reflecting the strong anti-French feeling post -Waterloo, but English travellers abroad a hundred or more years earlier were always complaining about French cuisine. Whence, one asks, does the reputation of French cooks for haute cuisine originate ? 

Harding’s healthy suspicion of British jingoism is illustrated by the following scornful caricature of Mr Winston Churchill on the front bench of the House of Commons drawn up by Dr Goebbels:

‘A glass of port in his hand and a fat cigar in his mouth, with a huge and bloody red steak which he puts in his mouth in big chunks, and chews and chatters and mokes until the blood trickles down his chin—and to think this monster comes of a good family.’

Some modern commentators have argued that because Hitler very occasionally ate meat, he wasn’t a vegetarian, which is like saying that vegetarians that sometimes eat fish aren’t committed veggies. Hitler was a vegetarian and Goebbels’ graphic picture of Churchill eating bloody steak was obviously a means of denigrating the British war leader. We don’t know what ‘ moke ‘ means in this context. Some contend that it is slang for donkey.

Harding then turned his attention towards class. 

‘ We thought he was a bit of an aristocrat when he first came, but we soon found he was a decent fellow.’

Factory workers on a managing director, reported in Picture Post.

‘ I am thinking of buying a yacht myself—-tell me, what is the upkeep ?’

J. P. Morgan:–‘ Anybody who has to ask that can’t afford one.’ 

‘ When the police called they looked so frightening she thought they were gangsters or insurance people.’ 

Witness at the Old Bailey.

Henry Irving getting into a hansom cab said to the cabby, ‘ Drive me home.’

‘Yes , sir, ‘ replied the cabby, ‘ what address?’

’ Why should I tell the address of my beautiful home to a common fellow like you?’, replied Irving.

‘ On one occasion Dr Butler ( former Master of Trinity) wrote to Sir Robert Scott, addressing his envelope to The Master, St John’s College, next door to Trinity College, Cambridge. Sir Robert was unperturbed. He wrote his reply to The Master, Trinity College, opposite Matthew’s the grocers, Cambridge.’

G.W. in the Spectator. 

To be continued…


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