JOHN JULIUS NORWICH compiles the year's funniest stories

From an organist so dire the vicar prayed for her to stop to the Human Blockhead who drove nails into their head: For 50 years, historian JOHN JULIUS NORWICH compiled the year’s funniest stories – and a hilarious new book presents the best

John Julius Norwich has compiled the funniest stories of the year to send to friends in a hilarious new book

Every Christmas, acclaimed historian John Julius Norwich sent his friends a sparkling selection of anecdotes, poems and quotes, entitled Christmas Crackers, that amused him. Word of their brilliance spread, and he was persuaded to publish them in an annual book. When Lord Norwich died a year ago, he was working on his 50th Cracker. Here are some of the gems from his final anthology, along with highlights from previous collections.

A letter written to Penelope Betjeman, wife of the poet John, by the Vicar of Baulking, taken from the late Maurice Bowra’s Memories:

Baulking Vicarage

My dear Penelope, 

I have been thinking over the question of the playing of the harmonium on Sunday evenings here and have reached the conclusion that I must now take it over myself.

I am very grateful to you for doing it for so long and hate to have to ask you to give it up, but, to put it plainly, your playing has got worse and worse and the disaccord between the harmonium and the congregation is becoming destructive of devotion. People are not very sensitive here, but even some of them have begun to complain, and they are not usually given to doing that.

I do not like writing this, but I think you will understand that it is my business to see that divine worship is as perfect as it can be made.

Perhaps the crankiness of the instrument has something to do with the trouble. I think it does require a careful and experienced player to deal with it. Thank you ever so much for stepping so generously into the breach when Sibyl was ill; it was the greatest possible help to me and your results were noticeably better then than now.

Yours ever,

F. P. Harton

The transcript of a radio conversation between USS Lincoln and the Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland has been widely published, with slight variations:

Authorities: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Lincoln: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.

A hilarious conversation between USS Lincoln and the Canadian authorities has been published with slight tweaks. The interaction appears to be a stand-off between the two forces which tell each other to divert their course (file image)

Authorities: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avert collision.

Lincoln: This is the Captain of the US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Authorities: No. I say again, divert YOUR course.


Authorities: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

It was Hester up in Chester, it was Jenny down in Kent;

Up and down the motorways, the same where’er he went.

In Luton it was Sally, quite the nicest of the bunch,

But down on his expenses they were petrol, oil and lunch.


Question 3A of the application form for New York University reads as follows:

‘In order for the admissions staff of our College to get to know you, the applicant, better, we ask that you answer the following question: Are there any significant experiences you have had, or accomplishments you have realised, that have helped to define you as a person?’

An applicant replied: ‘I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations in my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat return. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees.

‘I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

A student humoured New York University’s application process (file image) which asked prospective students to answer the question: ‘Are there any significant experiences you have had, or accomplishments you have realised, that have helped to define you as a person?’ In their answer, they wrote about cooking 30-minute brownies in 12 minutes

‘I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook 30-minute brownies in 12 minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

‘Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding.

The applicant said they read Moby Dick (pictured), David Copperfield and Paradise Lost in one day among other alleged skills. And believe it or not, he managed to secure a place

‘On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge. I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy eveningwear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and won the weekend passes.

‘Last summer I toured New Jersey with a travelling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.

‘I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed covert operations with the CIA.

‘I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me. I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four-course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven.

‘I breed prize-winning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, have performed open-heart surgery, and have spoken with Elvis.

‘But I have not yet gone to college.’

He got in.

Sir Thomas Beecham, after conducting the ‘Dance of the Cygnets’ (from Swan Lake) for the ballet of the Camargo Society at about twice the normal speed.

‘That made the buggers hop.’

Sir Thomas Beecham’s celebratory words at the end of conducting the ‘Dance of the Cygnets’ (pictured, file image of the dance in 2016) at twice the normal speed, were: ‘That made the buggers hop’

‘I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.’

Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple (pictured) stopped believing in Father Christmas when her mother took her to meet him in a department store

My dear son Jason has thoughtfully provided me with the following list of condom flavours currently available on Platform 1 of the railway station in Lady Thatcher’s home town of Grantham, Lincolnshire:

Strawberries and Cream

Ice Cream 

Lemon and Lime








Humpy Birthday

Tropical Nights

Lads’ Night Out


My friend Bob Guthrie has most kindly sent me the following extracts from an American parish magazine, culled over a number of years:

Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.

The rosebud on the altar this morning is to announce the birth of David Alan Belzer, the sin of Rev. and Mrs Julius Belzer.

Tuesday at 4pm there will be an ice cream social. All ladies giving milk will please come early.

Wednesday, the Ladies’ Liturgy Society will meet. Mrs Jones will sing ‘Put Me In My Little Bed’, accompanied by the Pastor.

Among the stories (pictured), is an extract from an American parish magazine which says: ‘Tuesday at 4pm there will be an ice cream social. All ladies giving milk will please come early’

Thursday at 5pm there will be a meeting of the Little Mothers’ Club. All wishing to become little mothers, please see the Minister in his study.

This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the altar.

The service will close with ‘Little Drops Of Water’. One of the ladies will start quietly and the rest of the congregation will join in.

Next Sunday a special collection will be taken to defray the cost of the new carpet. All those wishing to do something on the new carpet will come forward and do so.

The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind and they may be seen in the church basement Friday.

At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What is Hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.

I feel that before I die I must note down the only conversation I ever had with Margaret Thatcher. It must have been in 1979 or 1980, while I was a member of the board of the English National Opera. The Prime Minister had not been very long in office when we invited her and her husband to a performance of Tosca.

When it was over there was a little reception, in the course of which I went up to her and said I hoped she had enjoyed it. ‘Oh yes,’ she said, and then, to my astonishment, lectured to me about Tosca for several minutes: where it belonged in Puccini’s works, who had been the greatest singers of note, and much else besides.

Mr Norwich invited Margaret Thatcher to a performance of Tosca around 1979 when he was a member of the board of the English National Opera. After the performance, she critiqued the colour of one of the singer’s kerchief

I realised that, typically, she had sent for a brief, and learnt it. (She could never bear to be seen at a disadvantage.) The lecture finished and with me still there, she had to find another superiority: clothes.

PM: Of course, if one had been producing it oneself, one would have made certain changes.

JJN: Oh really, Prime Minister, what changes for example?

PM: Well, I mean, Tosca’s fichu.

JJN: But, Prime Minister, what was wrong with Tosca’s fichu?

PM: The colour, of course.

JJN: Well, it was red.

PM: Yes, it was red!

JJN: But, Prime Minister, what colour should Tosca’s fichu have been?

PM: Cerise.

From an obituary notice in the Daily Telegraph, December 19, 2001:

Melvin Burkhart, who has died aged 94, was a fairground sideshow performer known as the Human Blockhead because of his ability to drive a five-inch nail or an icepick into his head without flinching. The Human Blockhead worked under a number of alternative titles, depending on which of his extraordinary repertoire of physical contortions he happened to be performing.

Melvin Burkhart became known as the Human Blockhead because of his ability to drive a five-inch nail or ice pick into his head without flinching. He worked under many titles given his skill contorting parts of his body

As the Anatomical Wonder, he could inflate one lung at a time and dislocate his shoulders; as the Man Without A Stomach, he could suck his stomach back to his spine; as the Two-Faced Man, he could frown with half his face and smile with the other half. Among many other accomplishments, he swallowed swords, threw knives and ate fire.

He was universally admired by his fellow performers, one of whom observed: ‘Anyone who has ever hammered a five-inch nail into his nose owes a large debt to Melvin Burkhart.’

General Freiherr Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (1878–1943) was Chief of the German High Command. He supervised the manual on the Military Unit Command (Truppenführung), which was published in October 1933. Here is an extract:

‘I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious and the stupid. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious I appoint to the General Staff. Use can be made in certain circumstances of those who are stupid and lazy.

Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord (pictured right, with Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp in 1934) divided his officers into four classes of clever, lazy, the industrious and the stupid. He said the man ‘who is clever and lazy qualifies for the highest command’

‘The man who is clever and lazy qualifies for the highest command. He has the requisite nerves and the mental clarity to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be got rid of, for he is too dangerous.’

My friend Brian Young told me some years ago that a sentence with a surprise ending is called a paraprosdokian. Examples are:

Dorothy Parker’s:

If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

Or Groucho Marx’s:

I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.

Or Ogden Nash’s:

If at first you don’t succeed, the hell with it.

Or Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s:

If you can’t think of anything nice and kind to say about anyone — why, do come and sit beside me.

Taken from THE ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS CRACKER by John Julius Norwich, published by John Murray at £14.99. © John Julius Norwich 2019. To order a copy for £12 (offer valid until December 20; p&p free), visit or call 01603 648155.     

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