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Great bores of yore

Great bores of yore


Success, intellect and power have never guaranteed good dinner-party conversation. Adrian Wooldridge looks at some of history’s most tedious people


Success, intellect and power have never guaranteed good dinner-party conversation. Adrian Wooldridge looks at some of history’s most tedious people

Adrian Wooldridge | Summer 2008

“If you were not such a great man,” Gladstone’s wife told him, “you would be a great bore.” His belief that he was doing God's work on earth led him to lecture everybody on everything: Disraeli said that “of all the Bulgarian horrors”, his rival’s pamphlet on the subject was “perhaps the greatest”. Queen Victoria wrote that she would “sooner abdicate than send for or have any communication with that half-mad firebrand”. The prostitutes Gladstone picked up for the unnatural purpose of subjecting them to morally uplifting lectures found him harder to avoid.

To fellow philosophers, Kant was a giant. To the rest of humanity, he was perhaps the dullest man ever to darken a wigmaker’s doors. His writing, perfectly displayed in his 800-page “Critique of Pure Reason”, was ponderous even by the standards of German academia. He refused to travel more than a hundred miles from his home in Konigsberg, Prussia, and his habits were so regular that the locals could set their clocks by his daily walks.

He was the most boring dictator the world has seen, which is a high bar indeed. His habit of delivering eight-hour lectures on tractor production was bad enough. But he also managed to out-bore Lenin and Stalin in spinning class resentment into windy “political theory”. The “Eternal President” bores on long after his death: his statues litter the country and students are still forced to read his interminable writings.

In many ways he was admirable – he thought governments should do as little as possible. But the policy extended to his conversation. “Silent Cal” had nothing to say, yet insisted on dining out in Washington society. Asked why he accepted so many invitations, he said: “Got to eat somewhere.” When Dorothy Parker told him she had bet that she could get more than two words out of him, he replied: “You lose.” Parker took her revenge: on hearing that he had died, she asked, "How can they tell?”

Waugh was a great bore-baiter, never happier than when ridiculing bores (the hero of “A Handful of Dust” has to listen to the complete works of Dickens). But all the baiting turned him into something of a bore himself. He adopted the pose of a reactionary country squire, giant ear trumpet and all. If what was being said bored him, he simply removed the trumpet. This stunt too became a bore – which, for Waugh, only added to its appeal.

The post-war growth of universities created a vast new territory for bores. But one stands shaven head and shoulders above the rest. Foucault took the fad of focusing on marginalised groups ad absurdum – dwelling not on women and workers but on prisoners, lunatics and freaks. He inspired a whole generation of tenured tediocrats to write turgid books about irrelevant people – and then force their unfortunate students to read them.



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