Under my byline


Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 12 December 2009


“By far the most important skill in business,” wrote the London Times’s Sathnam Sanghera in a recent column, “is the ability to tell a decent anecdote.” I think he’s right. “Frankly,” said Sanghera, “banter should be taught at school alongside Geography and Maths. Nothing will benefit your career more.”

But they don’t teach the advanced social arts in school any more, directly or indirectly. One has to pick them up. Sadly there are few good examples to follow, and no chance of an immersion course — certainly nothing as effective as spending time with a quality courtesan. Conversation, as many have fretted, has been dying for years now.

Let’s add beside Conversation on death row her younger sister Anecdote. Although the average chatter among friends or co-workers is likely to include character sketches of varying acidity and brief narratives illustrating the foibles and crookeries of various individuals, the art of the anecdote, too, is in poor health. It’s not enough that a funny or noteworthy event takes place — to attain its full magnitude as an anecdote a skilled narrator has to do the telling.

There’s a good reason for this: at the core of every good anecdote is something universal. It takes a storyteller of some skill to intuit what that is, and shape the telling to highlight it. The finest storytellers are able to do this instantaneously; the rest have to work at it.

In times past there was more incentive to hone one’s narrative skills. All business was done face to face or via a letter or a go-between. Words were meaningful, not simply utilitarian. Which is probably why history is a great source of good anecdotes.

Politicians in particular, who before the 20th century spent far less time mixing with the electorate, were not often required to descend to the demotic. Conversation was one tool by which they both tested and exercised their power among their peers. And because politicians were satellites of the royal courts, aristocratic standards of behaviour and discourse prevailed. There’s no need to look as far back as the Mahabharata or even Machiavelli — there are examples in our own Independence generation of politicians.

All this came to mind when a literate friend sent me a few pages from Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature, published at the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries. D’Israeli was the father of Benjamin Disraeli — possibly Queen Victoria’s most successful prime minister, and a touchy politician with a sharp wit and a formidable gift for aphorism (“Bore: one who has the power of speech but not the capacity for conversation”) and anecdote.

But back to his father’s book. I was sent the section entitled “Anecdotes of Fashion”. Did you know that “The origin of many fashions was in the endeavour to conceal some deformity of the inventor”? Examples: “Full-bottomed wigs were invented by a French barber, one Duviller, whose name they perpetuated, for the purpose of concealing an elevation in the shoulder of the Dauphin [the heir to the throne of France]. Charles VII of France introduced long coats to hide his ill-made legs. Shoes with very long points, full two feet in length, were invented by Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Anjou, to conceal a large excrescence on one of his feet.” I’ve seen these things in pictures — now I know why they exist.

A few pages later: “When Louis VII, to obey the injunctions of his bishops, cropped his hair, and shaved his beard, Eleanor, his consort, found him, with this unusual appearance, very ridiculous, and soon very contemptible. She revenged herself as she thought proper, and the poor shaved king obtained a divorce. She then married the Count of Anjou, afterwards our Henry II. She had for her marriage dower the rich provinces of Poitou and Guyenne; and this was the origin of those wars, which for three hundred years ravaged France, and cost the French three millions of men. All which, probably, had never occurred, had Louis VII not been so rash as to crop his head and shave his beard, by which he became so disgustful in the eyes of our Queen Eleanor.”

I don’t have any workplace anecdotes to compare with this!


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