When Tomfoolery Gets Tired
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.