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.