'I Never Said That!'

'Crisis? What crisis?' was Prime Minster James Callaghan's response to Britain's Winter of Discontent in 1979. However, he never actually said those words. A compendium of wrongly-attributed quotations.

James CallaghanIn January 1979, while Britain was suffering from widespread strikes during the ‘Winter of Discontent’, Prime Minister James Callaghan returned to London from a summit in the West Indies, and when asked to comment on the mounting chaos, apparently replied ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ – a quote that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

In fact, he never said it. The quote was a Sun newspaper headline which brilliantly captured the public perception of a government out of touch. Here are some more things, with a January flavour, that famous people never said...

  • ‘Let them eat cake’. Louis XVI’s queen, Marie Antoinette, who was buried in Saint Denis Basilica in January 1815, was alleged to have said this on being told that the French people had no bread to eat. In fact it was probably attributed to her by French revolutionaries to paint her as callous and uncaring. Jean-Jaques Rousseau mentions the phrase as ‘the thoughtless sayings of a great princess’, referring to Marie Therese, wife of Louis XIV.

  • ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. Sherlock Holmes, whose birthday was in January, in fact never spoke his most famous line in any of the stories written by his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. P.G. Wodehouse was the first to use the phrase in his 1915 novel Psmith, Journalist, and it pops up again at the end of the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

  • ‘We are not amused’. Queen Victoria, who died in January 1901, is said to have uttered this put down to an equerry who told a rather too risque story during dinner at Windsor Castle – she was not using the royal ‘we’ but speaking on behalf of all the ladies present. The famous phrase has since come to sum up the supposed po-faced stuffiness of the Victorian era. In fact, Queen Victoria, who had a keen sense of humour, is understood to have told her grand-daughter, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, that she never uttered those words.

  • ‘Bugger Bognor’. On being told he might soon be well enough to recuperate in Bognor, George V is said to have uttered these immortal words just before he died in January 1936. In fact, according to his doctor, Lord Dawson, the king’s last words were ‘God damn you!’

From the archive:

Labour Wasn't Working

John Shepherd looks back to the turbulent Winter of Discontent, which heralded the demise of James Callaghan’s Labour government and paved the way for Margaret Thatcher and eighteen years of unbroken Conservative rule.