“I hope it stays fine for you!”

It's not a phrase you hear very often now; it has been brushed aside by coarser words and more insulting gestures. "I hope it stays fine for you": mildly ironic, faintly sarcastic, with a whiff of bitterness that is gone before you can properly scent it.

This afternoon I heard it murmured by a middle-aged friend, under his breath, to another middle-aged bloke who was rubbing him up the wrong way. He said it with a shrug – he wasn't looking for an argument, he was taking leave of the conversation, there would be no malice borne... but it wouldn't quite be true to say, "I couldn't care less." Exit, with a spark of ill-will.

The phrase was a favourite one of Kenneth Williams. It pops up throughout his diaries and his letters, especially when he's gossiping about some acquaintance who has snubbed him or (so KW imagines) let him down. "Oh, well, I hope it stays fine for him!" His mother, Louie, used to say it too – that would date it to at least the turn of the century. Perhaps it was a music hall catchphrase... it has just the right twist of camp insolence. Much more subtle, and really more effective, than a solitary, silent finger.