When Tomfoolery Gets Tired

Christopher Fowler
There has always been a big market for very silly books, and the best are treasurable. 'Squire Haggard's Journal',
'The Ascent of the Rum Doodle', 'Modern Types', 'My Uncle Harry', 'How To Be Topp' and the whole raft of W Heath Robinson volumess like 'How To Live In A Flat' are all delightful, but one book outsold them all. '1066 And All That' by Seller & Yeatman was 'All the history you can remember, forty years later'. It's a delightfully naive harlequinade of howlers, jests and jibes, or as the Observer said 'The best thing of its kind ever done. Quotation is hopeless.'
First published in 1930, it was also a bestseller for half a century. I remember it as being full of puns. But does it now stand the test of time? Well, here's the problem. The handed-down history of England has since been lost, along with very old Commonwealth textbooks, and I'm not sure that many people now have the same set of historical anecdotes passed to them by their parents and teachers. We grew up with these terrible old bits of 'humanising' history, stories of burnt cakes and seas being commanded to roll back and Raleigh's coat in the puddle, so most of the jokes here about dauphins and dolphins and Good Things and Bad Kings fall a little flat. The internet can give anyone a basic grounding in proper English history in just a day, so I'm not sure that '1066' is as hilarious as others once found it. It's all got a lot more complicated. And there was an even odder sequel. 'And Now All This' is their book of general knowledge, published in 1932, and it has some very random categories; myths, geography, knitting, babycraft (as it was called then), polar exploration and 'bodicure', what we would now call 'mindfulness'. There are jokes about the Swiss national anthem ('Funiculi-Funicula) and Jason and the Argonauts (mythinformation) that simply don't play now. Or perhaps they're just not very funny. Has the past become another country quite that much? Well, I daresay if one could transport back and show those who laughed at these books in the 1930s an episode or two of 'The Santa Clarita Diet', the comedy series in which Drew Barrymore eats her neighbour, they might also look perplexed. Sometimes I wonder if it's time to draw a line under a certain age of humour. Just as we would no longer countenance the idea of 'The Black and White Minstrel Show' or the grisly 'On The Buses', maybe we have to trim away the nostalgia and dump those books that no longer stand up to the bright-light scrutiny of the present. Interestingly, Dickens remains hilarious in places.  


Mike (not verified) Tue, 17/04/2018 - 07:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I recently showed my grandson some Molesworth and he looked at me as if I had lost all my marbles.

Roger (not verified) Tue, 17/04/2018 - 09:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"Diary of a nobody" still survives too, I think, for the same reason Dickens does and perhaps W. Heath Robinson: they're character-based. As you say, a handed-down English history is no use when no-one hands it down, but Messrs. Pooter and Twemlow face different problems in the same way people do now and we face the same difficulties with Wi-Fi that W. Heath Robinson's characters did with motor-cars and mechanised breakfasts.

Eliz Amber (not verified) Tue, 17/04/2018 - 10:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Dickens was a bit ahead of his time - much of his humour lay in seeing the injustices of his time, and that still works today. (In fact, we might argue that he is becoming more relevant, as the gap between rich and poor widens.) He's also dealing with a fairly recent historical period, and one that remains popular among authors and filmmakers.

I've been reading John O'Farrell's 'An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (Or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge)', and the title says it all - it's funny now because it looks at the past through the lens of current social mores (or liberal mores, at least). Some of his references, however, might be lost on future generations, simply because he is reading history in today's context.

And many of the myths of the past have been debunked; a joke based on a myth is less likely to get laughter than ten people saying, 'You know that didn't really happen.'

Jan (not verified) Tue, 17/04/2018 - 10:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thought 1066 and all that was very comical back in my skool days in the late 1960s early 1970s. But I suppose teaching has changed I wonder then if a new opportunity has arisen here for an updated take on the 1066 theme. A comedy take on what is taught in skools and colleges now would stand a chance of being a Christmas bestseller.

Surely if it's true that someone can pick up a basic grounding in proper English history in a day through 're internet then it would be possible to knock out such a book reasonably quickly.
Harking back again to an earlier comedy era it would be like one of the Ernie Wise plays. Perhaps a mornings work. Done and dusted by tea break perhaps.....

Peter Tromans (not verified) Tue, 17/04/2018 - 11:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Though humour may become dated, the art, where there is some, remains. For example, as years pass, I laugh less at Chaplin's films, but my growing appreciation of their other qualities more than compensates.

Matt (not verified) Wed, 18/04/2018 - 08:00

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One could never dump the Carry On series of films, could one?

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 19/04/2018 - 04:18

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"For pheasant read peasant throughout." "The Roman Conquest was, however, a Good Thing, since the Britons were only natives at that time." (and just as well to remind them of it.)
The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa, It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).
Can you really improve on this? To say nothing of the conflation of Arthur and Alfred and the cakes and marshes. I'll admit that you do have to have some knowledge of British history and those lovely little tales that adorn it (like putting out little Arthur's eyes with tiny little red hot irons) I did know the stories so I laughed and laughed. Still do. Reached behind me for my copy to get the Picts and Scots right.
"Painting each other woad or true blue."

Ken Mann (not verified) Thu, 19/04/2018 - 11:13

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My father mentions seeing the musical that was made of it.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 21/04/2018 - 18:53

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The very silliest books were, and are, in my opinion, TV tie-ins.
'The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok' aka: 'Tits And Bums: A Study Of Church Architecture'
'Monty Python's Big Red Book (Hardback Edition)' - Of course, it's blue and paperback.
'The Rutland Weekend Television Book'
'The Goodies' Book Of Criminal Records'
'TVGoHome' based on Charlie Brooker's website of the same name.
'A Local Book For Local People' A horrifyingly funny League Of Gentlemen tie-in. The dustcover, printed, and textured as if it is made of scraps of human skin, sewn together with wire, including a wince inducing section of scrotum, covers a very disturbing full length picture of Mark Gatiss in full body prosthetics as 'Aunty Val', who, of course is naked, and impressively hairy. Very disturbing indeed, especially if you're not expecting it.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sun, 29/04/2018 - 00:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Charlie Chaplin never made me laugh. Ever. I am in total agreement with Edmund Blackadder in 'Blackadder Goes Forth', when he sends a message to HQ to stop sending Charlie Chaplin films to watch. I always enjoyed the old silent comedies, which were often shown on TV when I was young. The late, great Bob Monkhouse had a vast collection of rare early movies, and presented some on a show, called, if memory serves, 'The Golden Silents'. And they were wonderful, especially to a kid - they were like 'Looney Tunes' with real people. Stone-faced Buster Keaton, Acrobatic Lupino Lane, Boss-eyed Ben Turpin, The Keystone Kops, Harold Lloyd, all doing seemingly impossible things; sometimes with camera trickery, but often for real, and it's not until you get older, that you realise these stunts were really real, and death was a companion on set. Rickety cars darting in front of speeding trains on level crossings, with no margin for error. Harold Lloyd actually ascending a real building in 'Safety Last', and he only had one complete hand, too. But Charlie Chaplin, eating a shoe, and walking about like he'd got Rickets? Nah. Not funny.