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Humour: Nigel Williams

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There is sometimes a section called ‘humour’ in bookshops. It's usually full of books (often illustrated) that are specifically designed to make people laugh. I always find such books rather sad. One of the nicest things about really great humorous story-tellers is that they usually don't consciously try and make you chuckle. It's simply that the way they see the world somehow makes the rest of us tune in to its absurdity. And often they surprise us into being moved or angered—perhaps because the best kind of laughter always lays you open to feeling.

Which is why I shall start with David Copperfeld (1849–50). As well as being the wonderfully exciting story (based on Dickens's own life) of a young boy surviving a cruel stepfather, bullying contemporaries, and the betrayals of friendship, it also has some of the best running gags in all of our literature. And they perfectly illustrate how Dickens can be serious and funny at the same moment. Every time Mrs Micawber, referring to her improvident but lovable husband, says ‘I will never desert Micawber!’ we laugh again—not only because we recognize an all-too-familiar type of melodramatic Mum but also because, with each repetition of the joke, her lack of awareness of the fact that deserting the old rogue is precisely what she would like to do becomes more obvious and more touching. The other classic that makes me laugh out loud is Tom Jones (1749), Henry Fielding's tale of an orphan, brought up by the kindly Squire Allworthy, who displays one of the most important features generally associated with comic characters—an inability to keep his hands off the opposite sex.

The eighteenth century is not usually thought of as a time when people laughed out loud—it specializes in pointed elegance and wit. But they didn't spend all their time sneering at each other from the opposite ends of formal gardens. Gulliver's Travels (1726) is still one of the funniest books in the language, especially if, like me, you like lavatory jokes. Johnson said that once you had got the idea—that a normal-sized human moves first through a world of miniature Lilliputians and then through the land of Brobdingnagian giants—there wasn't much more to the book. He was wrong. Swift was a master of inspired nonsense, such as the section in the book where he describes two groups of Lilliputians quarrelling over which end to break open their boiled eggs. If you enjoy this side of his writing, dip into some of his shorter pieces, especially A Meditation Upon a Broomstick (1710), a hilarious send-up of pompous moralizing.

Swift was of course Irish, and, perhaps because they have never been encumbered by Roman logic, the Irish have always been masters of comedy. Under the pen-name of Flann O'Brien, an Irish civil servant turned journalist called Brian O'Nolan wrote several comic masterpieces, of which you might try At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) and The Third Policeman (1967). It was O'Brien who invented the wonderful idea that a man who spent too much time on a bicycle might well turn into one. My favourite of his, however, was originally written in the Irish language and is called, in English translation, The Poor Mouth (1941; translated 1973), an expression which is used about those people (do we not all know some of them?) who think exaggerating the hard circumstances of their life will win them a large and sympathetic audience. If you enjoy parody you could also try Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm (1932), a deadpan look at rural melodrama, or the American Terry Southern's Candy (1958), a hilarious send-up and endorsement of that staple of the Internet—pornography.

The other American choice on my list (although I love Mark Twain he never raises more than a smile) is Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller. Set on an American bombing base in the Second World War it manages to twist logic so cleverly that you find yourself howling with laughter at something as obscene and pointless as a war that destroyed millions of lives. Among the scores of wonderfully funny characters, we should perhaps single out Milo Minderbender, an entrepreneur of genius who sees mass bombing as just another business opportunity. We British don't have many books that use humour to face up to issues as important as this. One that does is Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell, written just after the war that Heller describes. Originally turned down by London publishers (including T. S. Eliot) who were afraid of offending the Soviet Union, it is a short satirical fable about a group of animals who kick out their farmer-boss and set up their own free community. It is based very precisely on events in Russia and Europe from the revolution of 1917 down to the Yalta agreement at the end of the Second World War, in which Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill agreed to carve up the so-called civilized world between them. Detailed knowledge of the history is not necessary to enjoy this; the wonderfully drawn animal characters, including a splendid cart-horse called Boxer, would be funny even if Joe Stalin had never existed.

The heart of English humour, though, is whimsy and nonsense, of a peculiarly harmless kind—nowhere better expressed than in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Carroll, a mathematics don at Oxford, sends his heroine down a hole after a white rabbit with a fob watch and into a world where logic of a very special kind holds sway. Faced by events that are, in her own words ‘curiouser and curiouser’ and, like Gulliver, never entirely sure how big or small she is going to be, Alice manages to assert herself against characters as strange as a playing-card Queen who keeps trying to behead everybody. The obstacles in her path may not seem as frightening as giants or enemy bombers but the laughter she provokes is still liberating. Nearly all of the English School of comic fiction manages this trick of making the apparently ordinary—a passing animal, a leaf falling on a child's face—suddenly of tremendous significance. In Three Men in a Boat (1889) by Jerome K. Jerome, a fictionalized account of a camping trip up the Thames by three young men, the characters wrestling for hours with a tin of pineapple they are unable to open assumes the dimensions of one of the Labours of Hercules. In Uncle Dynamite (1948) by P. G. Wodehouse, the leading character is so traumatized by the prospect of an innocuous welcome-home committee that he ducks under the seat of his train compartment to avoid it, and in The Mating Season (1949) by the same author, the prospect of spending time with the son of his fearsome Aunt Agatha (’She is a thug!’) makes Bertie Wooster tremble like a man facing immediate execution. In Scoop (1938) by Evelyn Waugh (surely one of the funniest books of the century), the hero William Boot takes a journalistic expedition to Africa so seriously and so wrongfootedly that he tries to order a consignment of cloven sticks from a London department store in order to send messages by, from, and to the local natives. You will come out of all these books with a seriously altered sense of scale.

Waugh himself said that so-called ‘escapist’ literature should not be looked down upon, since it was often offering the reader escape from prison. He put Wodehouse in the category of writers offering this service to the reader but the lines of Wodehouse's humour are so classic—Jeeves and Wooster are straight out of Goldoni—that he almost manages to fool you into thinking he has some important purpose in mind. There is, however, some stuff that may look as if it belongs on the ‘Humour’ shelves—about which I was so unkind at the beginning of this article—but, because of the sheer skill of the writing or the miraculous liveliness of the central character, is in fact as good a class of nonsense as you will find anywhere. In a strong field I would suggest The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ (1982) by Sue Townsend, a small masterpiece in the tradition of the Grossmiths’ Diary of a Nobody (1892) and Geoffrey Willans’ inspired Down with Skool (1953; reprinted with three other Molesworth books in a collected edition, 1999). Its central character, Molesworth, has glasses, no dress sense, a ‘grate friend’ called Peason, and a classmate who goes under the name of Fotherington Thomas—a youth given to running about the games pitch squeaking ‘hullo birds hullo sky!’ ‘He is’, as Molesworth says, ‘utterly wet and a weed’ but it is hard to dislike him. And utterly impossible to take against the small, grubby boy who introduces him to us.

See also NIGEL WILLIAMS

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