THE WORLD IS DIVIDED, not into two kinds of people, but three: friends and loved ones (however occasionally hateful), social and professional acquaintances, and complete strangers. The first group is the smallest and the third, which comprises essentially all of humanity, is the largest. But the second is where the action is — if, by "action," we mean competition, rivalry, and an enforced obedience to, or sanctioned subjugation of, others.
Life among those people isn't a carnival (pace The Band), a cockeyed caravan (Preston Sturges), or a cabaret (Liza!). It's a genteel slug-fest, occasionally assuaged by the assistance and support of allies and the soothing indifference of the masses, and not just Stephen Potter (who?), but all of literature, we might say, analyzes and illustrates this basic quasi-Darwinian fact: to show us how people do or should interact and what consequences might follow therefrom.
But who has time for literature? We're busy. What we need is a handbook of tips and strategies for getting along in the world of those not-quite-strangers. And what we want is one that's fun to read, of course.
Well, we have it. Actually we have six, of which the three best still seem to be easily available, if not literally in print. They were written by a man who started as a professor of English literature and ended as an institution, or at least as close to it as a humorist can get.
Stephen Meredith Potter was born Feb 1 1900 and left school during the final months of WWI. Although drafted into the army, he saw no action, being discharged almost immediately when the end of the war brought demobilization. It was on to Oxford, where he studied English. He then turned pro as a lecturer at Birbeck College at the University of London, and became an expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1929 he published The Young Man, a well-received (but today unobtainable) novel and a study of D.H. Lawrence, the first book-length work on the author, published just days before Lawrence's death. There followed, respectably enough, three scholarly books about Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Potter edited the Nonesuch Press Coleridge (1933) and an edition of Sara Coleridge's letters to Thomas Poole (Minnow Among Tritons, 1934), and his most important academic work, Coleridge and S.T.C. (1935). Its reviews, as so many are, were positive but qualified.
In 1937 Potter published his first purely satirical work, The Muse in Chains, concerning the teaching of English literature. That same year he left academia for more remunerative pastures and joined the BBC full-time, at first producing and writing documentaries and literary features. In 1943 he began a collaboration with the exhaustingly hyphenated actress-singer-songwriter-writer Joyce Grenfell on a series of spoof instruction programs, including "How to Talk to Children," "How to Listen to Radio," and "How to Give a Party." Potter also became the drama critic of the New Statesman and a book critic for the News Chronicle.
Scribble, scribble; busy, busy. It was a life but not quite a l...read more