Looking For The Funniest English Book Ever Written Part 1

Reading & Writing

Setting aside the aforementioned PG Wodehouse, who really deserves his own special shelf, I spent an idle moment searching my bookcases for the single volume I found the funniest. In this I was purely considering its comedy value, not social comment. I came up with this batch.

Obviously ‘Vile Bodies’ by Evelyn Waugh is a classic, but it’s also hysterical, with main character Adam the latest in the long line of hopeless, hapless dimbos who pass for heroes in Waugh’s world. His casual on-off relationship with Nina is blurred in a series of ‘Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood… all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…” But perhaps the social comment does stop it from being the purely wittiest here.

Meanwhile, down Coleridge Close, right into Tennyson Avenue, left into Wordsworth Drive we find the home of Reginald Perrin, in three of the most charming, sad and uproarious novels I’ve read. ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ is probably the best, but of course David Nobbs Didn’t Get Where He Is Today by repeating the same trick over and over, and kept Reginald’s strange life fresh for each outing. I never saw the TV versions, and can’t imagine they capture Nobbs’ idiosyncratic prose.

If I learned one thing doing gigs, it was Never Go On After Charlie Higson. He’s so damned good onstage that he kills your follow-up. In ‘Getting Rid Of Mr Kitchen’ he has a great idea. The hero accidentally kills the man who comes round to buy his car, and has to get rid of the body fast because The Observer is coming to photograph his lounge. But he’s so incredibly argumentative that, although everyone in London wants to him him out of his dilemma, he just can’t get rid of Mr Kitchen. A superb spin on ‘The Trouble With Harry’.

Where do you start with ‘A Touch of Daniel’? Probably with the opening line: ‘When Auntie Edna fell off the bus, she landed on her pate and remained unconscious for sixty three days. At the end of this period she died, and they had a funeral.’ Northern humour is loved for its bleakness and Tinniswood is the master. His confused hero, Carter Brandon, careened through a pile of Tinniswood novels, all of which are wonderful. This was the first.

‘Squire Haggard’s Journal’ is a parody of an 18th century gentleman’s diary by master-comic Michael Green, and it’s his odd book out. It’s like Pepys on steroids, with Frog-baiting Squire Haggard shagging the maids, whipping the servants, examining his stools for dropsy, suffering Bloating Of The Bowels and generally being of a Lunatick Distemper. Nothing else Green wrote was ever as funny, but there’s a Deep English warning in place here.

Keith Waterhouse is one of my greatest heroes, and in ‘Office Life’ he tears into the banal horrors of the 9-5, where every Friday requires some kind of cake being dragged out for a secretary’s birthday and nobody writes anything without a top copy and two carbons. In this workplace satire a handful of befuddled employees try to understand what their company actually does for a living – and why do the phones never ring? The outcome is inevitable yet still surprising.

Michael Frayn’s ‘The Tin Men’ had me in tears of laughter when I first read it – I must go back to it. In an automaton research institute, scientists try to solve the puzzle of making computers human. But in doing so they fail to notice their own foibles, as Royalty prepares for a visit and they find themselves utterly unprepared. The hunt for a pair of ceremonial tape-cutting scissors is on, and the only man who might cause a disruption has been locked in his room. Which turns out to be a really bad idea…

Finally, we have WE Bowman’s ‘The Ascent of the Rum Doodle’, an utterly bonkers parody of the adventure novel, described as doing for mountaineering what ‘Three Men In A Boat’ did for the Thames. The chairman of the committee to conquer the Rum Doodle is Sir Hugely Wavering, and the expedition runs into the kind of unimaginable disasters that only a bunch of truly inept men could manage between them. Just the simple act of using the walkie-talkies becomes a tangle of codenames and passwords that marks these explorers as unsuitable candidates for a country fete, let alone a life-threatening climb.

I’ve chosen mostly Northern men here – next time we’ll add a female perspective, and some Southerners.

17 comments on “Looking For The Funniest English Book Ever Written Part 1”

  1. Barry says:

    Keith Waterhouse: Billy Liar on the Moon
    Alexei Sayle: Barcelona Plates (short stories)
    Douglas Adams, Terry Prachett, – lots of novels.

  2. Aref Dyer says:

    Another comedy great is Joseph Connolly’s Stuff, which was also laugh out loud funny as well as being an incredible comedy of manners. Completely agree about Reginald Perrin, although my feeling was that the TV series did actually capture some of the original source material. Would you consider Stephen Fry’s Liar? Again, at times, laugh out loudbfunny

  3. snowy says:

    There was I thinking that W E Bowman was only known to those that had spent time in a mountain hut, waiting for a storm to pass. But it is a certainly a gem of a book.

    The most eye-boggling opening to a book I have so far read is the first chapter of ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ by Chris Brookmyre. Though his use of Scots slang (amongst other things) might put a few off.

    I’ll not mention the ‘Bard of Brentford’ in case he is due in the next installment.

  4. agatha hamilton says:

    Funniest book ever is a big claim, but wouldn’t ‘Lucky Jim’ and Geoff Dyer’s ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ come somewhere on the list?

  5. John Howard says:

    I can only say yes to all of them but was so pleased to find The Trouble With Daniel in amongst the list. They all have their own reasons for being there but Carter has, in my opinion, to come very near the top.

  6. John Howard says:

    Oh and definitely agree with you snowy about Chris Brookmyre. I lived in Scotland for many years so reading the scots slang was part of the fun for me even though I’m a southerner.

  7. John Howard says:

    And I can’t go without giving the phase of the moment, “Deep English” a large hoorah..

  8. martin says:

    Tom Sharpe, The Throwback. Or any of the first three Wilt novels.

  9. Roger says:

    Going back, and an influence on Wodehouse, Saki, but selecting short stories might count as cheating.
    The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis.
    Cold Confort Farm- not a mere ‘female perspective’

  10. snowy says:

    John, if you like Scottish and darkly comic, have you heard of the Barney Thompson series? If not I’d recommend starting with ‘The Long Midnight of Barney Thompson’. I’ve just checked the cost on Zanoam [anag] and it and the rest of the series are at bargain prices.

    Going back to CB, the improvised ‘rope’ from BME is an image that is probably never going to leave my mind.

  11. J F Norris says:

    No women writers anywhere? Stella Gibbons, Muriel Spark (MEMENTO MORI has some black humor to rival Tinniswood), and Sue Townsend for starters. Townsend was the cause of several embarrassing public fits of snorts and guffaws when I read the Adrian Mole books on the bus to and from work many years ago.

  12. Simon T. says:

    Paul Hendy’s first novel ‘Diary of a C-List Celeb’ was a total knicker-wetter, and I remember trying to read out loud from Mark Wallington’s ’500 Mile Walkies’ and failing utterly because laughing too much (much to the irritation of the would-be listener)…

  13. John Howard says:

    Thanks for that snowy. Will definitely check out Barney Thompson.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Loved Adrian Mole and Saki is one of my most/least favourite school memories. Loved his story about the guest who is entertained with a story about a group who went shooting and never returned. When the group returns after a perfectly normal afternoon shoot the guest pales and dashes for the door. The men are mystified until the narrator explains that the man had been terrorized by wild dogs in India. “Romance at short notice was her(?) specialty.” The teacher put a question about Saki’s real name on 3 successive tests & I could never remember it. It’s HH Munro, of course & I’ll never be able to forget it now.
    Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett go without saying. Part of the problem is that people have slightly different views on what is funny. Some people love situational humour while others despise it and then there are puns and related wordplay about which there are violently differing views.

  15. Dan Terrell says:

    Someone wrote (or said): To pun is human, To forgive devine. Which when you think about is deeper than one might think at first. That little twist on words is so human-human, but leaves so many either bewitched, bothered or bewildered. Deep punning, anyone?

  16. John Howard says:

    Deep Punning? What could be more Deep English than that?

  17. Matt McG says:

    Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Charlie Mortdecai books would be up there, I think. Perhaps leaving aside ‘Something Nasty in the Woodshed’ which is in dubious taste.

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