'A man was driving along with a cargo of penguins when his lorry broke down. In due course, another lorry driver drew up and asked if he could be of assistance. "Yes," said the first, "I've got this load of penguins in the back. Could you take them to the zoo?" "Certainly," said the second. A few hours later, the first driver saw the second driver walking in the road with the penguins strung out behind him. "I thought I told you to take those to the zoo?" "Sure," said the other driver. "I did that. Now I'm taking them to the movies."' Jessica Mitford in The Times They are what Churchill called 'the gleaming toys of history' - those entertaining stories, many of them biographical, that light up past and present and fix them in our memories. Anyone can be the subject of an anecdote. No special skills are required; one merely has to be human. Like the eccentric West de Wend Fenton, for example, who was apt to summon waiters at the Ritz by throwing his dentures at them; or Lieutenant Richard Buckle who, on one of his regular foraging expeditions across the German lines in World War II, returned with a bridal gown which he insisted on wearing in the Mess. While a privileged few are blessed with the cool demeanour and ready wit of an Oscar Wilde or a Noël Coward, for others life is a disaster waiting to happen - and very funny it often is. Stretching from ancient Athens to 20th-century New York, and ranging from politics and philosophy to pop music, from quick thinking to not thinking at all, from the witty riposte to the slip of the tongue ('The Queen Mother is coming; I can hear her motorcycle'), The Folio Book of Humorous Anecdotes offers a generous and varied selection of scenes from the human comedy. Whether it is T. S. Eliot being troubled by tap-dancers, the Duke of Buckingham being caught with 'his hand in his cod-piece', or Dorothy Parker commenting on a performance by Katherine Hepburn that 'She ran the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B', what unites these brief moments of triumph and tragedy, glory and humiliation, is their capacity to make us laugh.
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