Wry Back Pages
Every so often, someone will ask me, “So, Evan, what do you do in your spare time?” This is an easy question to answer since I have no spare time, but if I did, I would say “Why, I hang out at newsstands.” Newsstands are a passion of mine, and I realized recently that the abundance of newsstands in New York City is, in fact, the only truly plausible reason to live here.
The reason I mention all this is that I noticed on a recent visit to my local newsstand that the classic British humor magazine Punch, having died a few years back from anemic circulation, has evidently been resuscitated. The new Punch, I discovered, is a pleasant enough read, but lacks the quirky edge of the original magazine. The new editors have, however, almost made up for the magazine’s blandness by instituting a feature called the Punch Archive, wherein they reprint cartoons from the golden age of Punch in the late 19th and early 20th century.
One of the cartoons reprinted in the first issue of the new Punch I picked up was a genuine classic by George du Maurier, not only a funny cartoon in its own right, but the source of a remarkably durable and pungent English metaphor. First published in 1895 and titled “True Humility,” it shows a young curate dining with his wealthy Bishop. The host observes that his guest has been accidentally served a bad egg, to which the curate replies, “Oh no, My Lord. I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!”
The joke is, of course, that such a thing is impossible — a rotten egg is 100 percent rotten and utterly inedible — but the curate is so afraid of offending his host and possibly damaging his career that he is willing to eat the egg anyway.
DuMaurier’s tag line, “Parts of it are excellent!”, caught the popular ear at the turn of the century, and “a curate’s egg” soon became a metaphor for a bad situation that someone persists in trying to salvage with misplaced or phony optimism. “A curate’s egg” is still heard occasionally today, often incorrectly explained as meaning something that simply has both good and bad qualities. But that definition blunts the refreshing insight — that Pollyannas are often ludicrous opportunists — of George DuMaurier’s classic cartoon.