Quote Origin: If You Think Squash Is a Competitive Activity Try Flower Arrangement

Alan Bennett? Maggie Smith? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: Sports contests are often highly competitive, but one does not expect to find bitter rivalry and ambition in a genteel craft. Here are two versions of a statement that highlights this incongruity:

(1) If you think squash is a competitive activity try flower arrangement.

(2) If you think squash is a competitive activity try flower-arranging.

Would you please help me to find the origin of this humorous statement and the correct phrasing?

Reply from Quote Investigator: English playwright and screenwriter Alan Bennett authored a group of six monologues for BBC television in 1987. The works were published under the title “Talking Heads” by BBC Books in 1988. The prominent actress Maggie Smith played the role of Susan who was a vicar’s wife for the second monologue titled “Bed Among the Lentils”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

I’m even a fool at the flower arrangement. I ought to have a PhD in the subject the number of classes I’ve been to but still my efforts show as much evidence of art as walking sticks in an umbrella stand. Actually it’s temperament. I don’t have it. If you think squash is a competitive activity try flower arrangement.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1989 “The Penguin Thesaurus of Quotations” included the following entry:2

If you think squash is a competitive activity try flower-arranging.
[Alan Bennett, 1934- , Talking Heads, ‘Bed among the Lentils’]

Interestingly, this citation pointed to the correct location, but this version of the quotation was slightly inaccurate. The phrase “flower-arranging” differed from the original “flower arrangement”.

In 2000 “The Times Book of Quotations” contained the following entry:3

Bennett, Alan (1934-) English dramatist, actor and diarist
If you think squash is a competitive activity, try flower arrangement.
Talking Heads (1988)

The quotation has also appeared in the “Collins Dictionary Quotations”4 in 2003, the “Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”5 in 2008, and “Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany”6 in 2020.

In conclusion, Alan Bennett deserves credit for crafting this statement in 1987. Also, Maggie Smith delivered the line during a BBC television program.

Image Notes: Photo of a winter bridal bouquet from Alison Cosker at Unsplash.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Eli Burnstein whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

  1. 1988, Talking Heads by Alan Bennett, Monologue Title: Bed Among the Lentils, Character Susan: Played by Maggie Smith, Quote Page 34, BBC Books, London. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  2. 1998, The Penguin Thesaurus of Quotations, Edited by M. J. Cohen, Topic: Competition, Quote Page 87, Penguin Books, London and New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  3. 2000, The Times Book of Quotations, Section: 670, Quote Page Sport and Games, HarperCollins, Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Verified on with hardcopy) ↩︎
  4. 2003, Collins Dictionary Quotations, Introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, Topic: Sport and Games, Quote Page 339, HarperCollins Publishers, Glasgow, Scotland, U.K. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  5. 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Ned Sherrin, Category: Sports and Games, Quote Page 310, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  6. 2020, Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany by Dwight Garner, Entry: Alan Bennett, Quote Page 149, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩︎