We recently enjoyed the Cambridge University Press Christmas lunch, a jolly affair with a traditional Christmas menu, party poppers, streamers, and Christmas crackers containing jokes whose abysmal level is also something of a tradition. In this spirit, I thought we would round off the year with some bons mots and aperçus from two not completely serious publications in the Collection: our best-selling Cambridge Jokes, and Sketches from Cambridge, originally published anonymously by ‘A Don’ in the Pall Mall Gazette in the early 1860s. The author of the latter was in fact Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), the archetypal all-round Victorian man of letters and father of Virginia Woolf: his skewering of the Cambridge undergraduate types of his day with elegant but deadly barbs remains entertaining, even if some of the contemporary references are now obscure.
Cambridge Jokes is a hotch-potch, though not an omnium gatherum as it has only two components. We had come across James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (the Phillipps was added, as so often, in order to secure a legacy, but in bizarre circumstances to which his ODNB entry does justice) in the context of Shakespearian criticism, and thought that his antiquarian Jokes of the Cambridge Coffee-Houses in the Seventeenth Century might be a useful addition to our list of books on Cambridge. We were looking for something else altogether (one of the joys of access to the University Library) when we came across The Fresher’s Don’t – in its sixteenth edition of 1913. This estimable guide to student etiquette – ‘ To the Freshers at Cambridge, the Remarks and Hints are addressed with all courtesy by A Sympathiser (B.A.)’ – was probably written originally by A.J. Storey, and it was published (‘Price 6d’) by Redin & Co. of Trinity Street, Cambridge, whose ‘College Arms Playing Cards’ are among the items featured in advertisements at the beginning and end of the pamphlet. We put this together with the jokes of the coffee-houses, added an appropriate (in sentiment, though not in period) Hogarth print to the front, and – inadvertently, it has to be said – created a best-seller.
So here are the cream of the witticisms created, circulated and enjoyed (?) in Cambridge from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, with best wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Peaceful and Prosperous New Year to [all] our reader[s].
‘A Cambridge scull being asked how he got so much wit, being but a scull, answered, where should the wit be but in the scull?’
‘A young student told his tutor that he was very much perplexed, having been unable to find the Latin of the word aqua vitae in his dictionary.’
‘Gurnet being asked why in St Mary’s he prayed for the mayor and aldermen, who were so notorious for wickedness, said, “Because we are commanded to pray for our enemies”.’
‘The price of good undergraduates has risen fearfully. . . One used to be able to buy a very fair scholar for fifty pounds, given in the form of an open exhibition. Fifty pounds will now hardly buy a senior optime; a probable wrangler turns up his nose at anything under seventy, besides room and commons.’
‘An Englishman is greedy of enjoyment; he likes to cram into a few minutes what a foreigner would spread over hours; if he means to get drunk he indulges in strong drinks; he despises the feeble liquids by which the desired goal may be gradually and circuitously approached.’
On wranglers: ‘Their conviviality is typified by the very ancient story of the wrangler who, on taking his degree, locked twelve men into a room with one bottle of wine, saying that they should not go till they had finished it.’
‘Paradoxical as it may appear, I rather like mathematicians. They have, indeed, one merit which is almost compulsory. Their peculiar subject is so singularly repulsive to the general public that they seldom intrude it into general conversation.’
‘Don’t play the piano all day, however accomplished you are. It is not kind to your neighbours.’
‘Don’t attend chapel every day to commence with, or you will be expected to keep it up.’
‘Don’t mistake a don for a gyp. The gyp is the smarter individual.’
‘Don’t show contempt for the Deans. They are a well-meaning class, and very powerful.’
‘Don’t attend Divine Service at the Pitt Press. The music is not good.’
‘LASTLY: Don’t let your residence in Cambridge cause you to assume superiority over others less fortunate. The object of a University career is to improve the mind by study and social intercourse, so that the former school-boy may be fitted for an honourable and useful career, for the good of his country and the benefit of those with whom he may come into contact in after life.’