Enoch Powell and the chatty barber
Sorry everyone, we're still on laughter I'm afraid (haven't had a life outside the "gelastic community" lately). But this is, I think, an unexpected twist -- which was the silver lining of the cloud of last week, when I had got into a mess with the very end of the book.
In part of the offending sections that I had sent to my friend in my cry for help, I had referred to a joke in the Roman jokebook, the Philogelos, about a chatty barber. "'How would you like me to cut your hair?' asked a chatty barber of his client. 'In silence' came the reply." (And exactly the same gag is attributed by Plutarch to the fifth-century BC Macedonian king, Archelaus.)
In his comments on my rather inchoate, badly-in-need-of-improvement version Peter had also written "I've always heard that joke attributed to Enoch Powell" -- and his checking it out with the local Powell expert confirmed that to be true.
It was only a few days later that I saw how useful this could be to me. In the Afterword I wasthen writing, I wanted to reflect a little on how (and why) we still tell "Roman" jokes. And this was a perfect one to cite, but I needed a "source" (yes, dammit,even in the Afterword I think it has to have a footnote).
So I scanned the web and found quite a few references to it.. sometimes as "apocryphal", sometimes as bona fide. And there were quite a few comments of the type "I couldn't stand Powell's politics, but this is actually quite a good joke." Nobody appeared to realise the joke's pedigree.
I was drawing a blank, however, on an actual source for the Powell version -- until I came across a little hint that the fons et origo was in Woodrow Wyatt's diaries.
At this point, a crisis of conscience ensued. Should I hoof it off the library to see if I could track it down, or should I get on with finishing and fudge it a bit, with a reference to some website.
You'll be pleased to know I decided on the library.
I ordered up the three volumes of diaries online (that's progress for you), and by the time I had got to the UL's West Room, they were waiting . . . three very fat volumes. The heart sank.
But I bravely sat down, and turned to the index of volume 1. There were just one of two entries for "Powell, Enoch".. and with the kind of serendipity you dream of, the first one I turned to was IT.
This is a snatch of Wyatt had to say:
"There is a very chatty barber in the Commons who never stops telling MPs whose hair he cuts about politics and what his views are on the world. Enoch Powell went to have his hair cut by him one day, sat down and the barber said, 'How would you like your hair cut, sir?' 'In silence' Enoch replied."
Now that's not quite the horse's mouth, but it's not so very far away. And, given that the chattiness of the barber was well known, it's pretty clear that we don't have to see Powell as unprepared for his quip -- more like waiting for the perfect occasion to use it.
Wyatt himself doesn't appear to have known the classical archetype any more than the others who repeat it. My own hunch is that that would have been a big part of the pleasure of the joke for Powell (classicist by training). Everyone was spreading his quip -- but they didnt know what he knew: that it was a classical joke all along.
Anyway, when my book comes out, you'll find that (and more) in the Afterword.