The English Taste For Nonsense

Media, Reading & Writing, The Arts

I have before now dipped a toe into writing surrealist comedy – actually my first attempt at a book, ‘Letters From Home’ (unpublished) was created from a series of radio sketches I used to write, and had a distinctly surrealist flavour. Set in 1915, it mismatched two batches of letters going back and forth between the French trenches and a country house in Middle England. What interested me then, and now, is that like English Magic, a surrealist streak runs through English humour, particularly in use of language.

I wrote a second novel, ‘Gone With The Gin’ (unpublished), that also played with surreal stylings while I was finding my feet. Juvenilia collectors be warned, I have copies of both of these early novels and you’re not getting your hands on them.

The college love of wordplay, mixed with bizarrely inappropriate elements, is less surrealism really than ‘nonsense’, as originally conceived by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. There are books I treasure like ‘The Ascent of the Rum Doodle’ and ‘The Exploits of Englebrecht’, which are utterly strange and glorious, and this style continued through shows like ‘The Goons’ and ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’, eventually extending into ‘At Last The 1948 Show’ and another Monty Python predecessor, ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’, which was aimed at children and yet inserted literary references into its silliest jokes. ‘The Intro & The Outro’ eventually became an extended music track from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

A spin-off of DNAYS was the nonsense-decadence film ‘Sir Henry At Rawlinson’s End’ with Trevor Howard. When one thinks of the plays of Peter Nichols, the stand-up comedy of Eddie Izzard or TV shows like ‘The Mighty Boosh’ and ‘The League Of Gentlemen’ it’s hard to imagine what anyone from another country might intuit about us from these strange artefacts. I wonder if it also goes back to a tradition of strange children’s comics, the ones parodied so astutely by Viz, a magazine which must find itself increasingly stranded from its original audience by the passage of time, with its tales of Black Bag, the faithful border bin-liner, Queen Victoria’s Hovering Tea Room and the Bottom Inspectors. Here’s Mrs Brady being a martyr to peristalsis.


American comedy seems to me to be largely about astutely grounded social observation, rather than peculiar flights of fancy, and while I also love many of these they often don’t stay with me in the way that cruelly nonsensical English humour has, partly because I don’t want my comedy to contain life-lessons. The series ‘Psychoville’ (which to this day I’m convinced Reece Shearsmith stole my book title for after seeing it while filming in my flat) reached dizzy heights of bleak strangeness. One entire episode parodied ‘Rope’, and the mother/son conversations were particularly dark.

The wonderful US cartoonist B Kliban always made me laugh – especially his book ‘The Biggest Tongue In Tunisia’, but ironically his bestselling work was also his weakest, being all about cats. His rhyming pages were things of beauty, nonsense in its purest form, and for years I used one of them for a Christmas card. It said ‘Pencil, stencil, Good King Wencil’ and really should be licensed by someone.

In the UK, the novels of Magnus Mills continue this odd history of nonsense writing. For the novice, I’d recommend ‘Squire Haggard’s Journals’. Written by Michael Greene in the 1950s, the journals are a bawdy parody of a late 18th century gentleman’s diary. Amos Haggard is a Hogarthian grotesque, chugging Madeira, horsewhipping servants, rogering prostitutes, evicting paupers and discharging his pistols at anything foreign. To avoid unpaid debts and an impending duel he escapes to the country, embarking on an unscheduled Grand Tour that allows him to behave in an indecent fashion toward the crowned heads of Europe.

In the process, he reveals the origin of the Little Englander in all his sclerotic, xenophobic horror. The diary is obsessed with demise and unusual diagnoses, including ‘Putrefaction Of The Tripes’ and ‘Death from Windy Spasms’, and whether by accident or design somehow manages to capture the flavour of the times more succinctly than many carefully researched serious biographies. When a writer is free to have fun with a topic the results sometimes yield pleasant surprises, and Squire Haggard is clearly a precursor to Blackadder. The book has been republished by Prion, who have reissued a number of equally enjoyable humour classics.

22 comments on “The English Taste For Nonsense”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    This brings to mind my childhood favourite author J P Martin, whose complete works are happily about to be reprinted. His book “Uncle” has at the front a dramatis personae dividing all characters up between Uncle’s friends or membership of the “Badfort crowd” of villains, except for the final entry which says “hated by both sides – Alonzo S Whitebeard”. Incidentally it seems to have been memories of the intro and the outro which inspired Vivian Stanshall’s appearance on “Tubular Bells” when the label demanded that it not be entirely instrumental.

  2. RH says:

    Great advice from Hal kliban: ‘never eat anything bigger than your head’ …

  3. Bob Low says:

    I think an even more distinctively English literary characteristic is surrealism and whimsy shot through with deep melancholy. A perfect example of this is one of my favourite books, T.H. White’s ”The Once and Future King”. The zany, knockabout humour, and deliberate anachronisms are never far removed from painfully drawn tragedy, and a sense of things falling apart. White was apparently a jovial, witty man, but plagued by bouts of severe depression, and this may, at least in part, account for the unforgettable flavour of this classic. I re-read it again in the last few years, and found it to be every bit as wise, funny, and heart-breaking as I ever have.

  4. snowy says:

    I’d forgotten about ‘Haggard’ then I remembered why! There was a rather limp TV series based on the book pushed out by YTV 20 years ago starring him from ‘Duty Free’.

    But the thread of the absurd continues in ‘Bleak Expectations’. Which defies description, but imagine what Dickens would have written during a prolonged laudanum binge and you will be there or there abouts.

    There are a few clips about, anyone tempted to buy should avoid iTunes (£8 ouch!), and use AudioGo (£3).

  5. Jez Winship says:

    Viv Stanshall’s Sir Henry At Rawlinson’s End appeared as an inspired, semi-regular ‘serial’ on the John Peel show in the 70s and 80s, harking back to the old days of the wireless. I remember the last one ending up with Sir Henry bagging a brontosaurus which had somehow wandered onto his estate, bellowing ‘there’s only room for one dinosaur at Rawlinson’s End’. There was an LP released in the 70s which captured their flavour. You can find all of the old episodes via SHARE (a Stanshall appreciation society and archive). He also created some madcap imperial adventures when he sat in for Peel, with his loyal batman played by Keith Moon.

  6. Ken Mann says:

    There might be a case to be made for the innate conservatism of whimsy. Peter Wilkin’s book “The Strange Case of Tory Anarchism” discusses this – a frame of mind held by toffs whose every instinct is to be right wing but who are all too aware of the moral corruption of the institutions they notionally are part of. The piece of the English puzzle that produced “Private Eye” among other things, and is also related to rock bands founded by college graduates – Lord Snooty and his pals meet the Village Green Preservation Society via Dr Strabismus (whom god preserve) of Utrecht.

  7. Janet Wilson says:

    Great to find others with the same sense of humour as my late partner! Hav just rediscovered ‘Chlmsford 123’, a sort of ‘Essex Asterix’ comedy that was unfairly ignored in late 80s, perhaps because one Roman comedy too many at that time, but akshly v. good. ‘Straight is great! Curvy is pervy!’ Available on 4OD or whatever that’s called. Sort of apropos yet not, anyone remember ‘The Trigan Empire’? My mum wld’ve been disappointed to know it ended up being the only thing I read in ‘Look&Learn’. I once heard that kind of fiction well described as ‘horses in the starship hold’. And keep an eye on the 11pm slot on 4xtra for gems such as ‘The Harpoon’.

  8. snowy says:

    Chelmsford 123, did suffer a bit because a lot of it’s audience initially came across from ‘Who Dares Wins’ and were very confused by the sudden ‘gear change’.

    The line about roads can only have come from the mouth of Viatorus, engineer, bringer of rain, sculptor (unable to do noses, “not all elephants have trunks”) played by Geoffrey Whitehead.

    (Who has a recurring role in ‘Bleak Expectations’ as six different members of the Hardthrasher Clan.)

  9. admin says:

    Loving these comments. I’ve never heard of ‘Chelmsford 123’ and the idea of Tory anarchy is a good one, an extension, I suppose, of hurling bread rolls at the Bullingdon Club waiters that ends with moves on to beating the servants and eventually exercising power over the natives.

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    Gurrr…”Loving these comments”!
    I keep hearing “Plastic fantastic” in my head with the recent publication of “Plastic”. Why is that? Is “plastic fantastic” a catch phrase, a quote from a film, record album, or what? Or is it just me?

  11. snowy says:

    I would suspect it is a reference to a Jefferson Starship track, [if it is from Barbie Girl by Aqua you might want to keep that ‘under your hat’.]

  12. Dan Terrell says:

    Snowy – I grew up with Jack Cassidy of Jefferson Airplane and Starship fame and so kept up with their music. Still, I don’t really remember that line but you may be right. I don’t know Aqua, if it was between ’63-’67 or ’72-’79 I was out of the States and out of touch, but anything called Barbie Girl…..

  13. snowy says:

    Click on my name to ‘experience’ the full Aqua effect.

    Just don’t blame me if your ears fall off in protest.

  14. C Falconer says:

    Janet Wilson – I adore/d Trigan of the Trajan Empire. I met it through my brother’s L&Ls that survived to my childhood in the 70s, and back in the 80s(? maybe early 90s) I actually bought a large format book which was a collection of 3 stories for about 20 quid (which was a lot of money then). I still have it and am now tempted to ferret it out.

    It was the combination of Romans with technology plus politics of power which I enjoyed. And the legs were very well drawn….

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Well, Snowy, you did warn us. It will take a while to recover from that.

  16. Janet Wilson says:

    C. Falconer- got that Trigan Empire anthology! Have a feeling it was indeed Italian in origin, out of the ‘sword & sandals’ era. Anyone up on Italian comic books/graphic novels? Also remember some frm late 80s featuring psychic P.I. Dylan Dog? I had ambitions to translate them, but life happened whilst I was making those other plans… By the way, error- ‘t’was ‘Chelmsford 125’, a joke about intercity trains I think?

  17. Ken Mann says:

    I once met Don Lawrence – the artist of the Trigan Empire comics – at a convention. He described signing a scrap book compiled by a small boy who had painstaking cut all the explosions out of his work to create an all-explosion Don Lawrence collection.

  18. Janet Wilson says:

    Ken Mann, thanks for ‘Don Lawrence’; I’m very new to ‘the interweb thingy’, had forgot that all ever thought or done is now Out There. Searched for ‘Trigan Empire’, found that a film version is stuck in development hell! Cld any film live up to those explosive frames tho? ‘T’was Trajan’s column with aerial combat… Was so excited by re-discovery, went and washed some socks to ground myself. Anyway… may I just say to Mr Fowler’s followers, ‘Fortean Times’. As Matilda with her parents and Dickens, I wish you wld all try just a little. If u don’t become a Fortean Fowler follower, fair enuf, but I know without looking that Mr Bryant has dusty piles of ’em stashed down the side of the bed, as have I.

  19. snowy says:

    You are not alone in your regard for the ‘FT’ something I also read in the days before the Internet. It was sometimes quite hard to get hold off, only one newsagent carried it, and in limited numbers. The publication dates were slightly erratic, and if you were not careful it would be sold out.

    I had very little chance in keeping any as there was a queue of people wanting to read my copy soon afterwards.

    It tailed off a bit when it spawned a glossy sibling and a lot of the better stories ended up in that.

  20. Janet Wilson says:

    Snowy- I take it that paper has rarely sullied yr fingertips since circa 1996? I just enjoy reading 1 thing at a time, turning pages, sticking an old postcard in where I left off… And, ‘books do furnish a room’. Tho it cld b said that old mags merely clutter it…

  21. snowy says:

    Can’t beat paper, portable, foldable requires no power, and displays instantly. Loathe viewing anything like a map, diagram or painting on a tiny screen, it feels like peering through a letterbox, (pan, drag, zoom, shift gets very tiring very quickly).

    When there is a big problem to solve, my preferred tool used to be several large sheets of paper stuck to a wall. But I realised I can get the same effect, better quality paper and less fiddling about with sticky tape if I use a roll of lining paper.

    If I know I’ll have to wait anywhere I’ll take a short story collection with me in book form. Or a cryptic or a notebook. 🙂

  22. Janet Wilson says:

    Thanks for yr thoughts on paper v. screen- all helpful to one feeling lost in cyberspace. Let’s c wot’s in my nearest book pile. Q.I. Second Book of General Ignorance; Oscar’s Books; Vanished Kingdoms; M.R. James (of course!); Pevsner’s North Somerset & Bristol; The Life of Poe; Radio Times; The Code of the Woosters; C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War; Bryant&May On the Loose. And that’s just the top layer. Short stories. Are short stories ShrinkLit? Was Chekov a Dostoevsky wannabe with a day job? Discuss. Only joking- 1 reason I luv B&M, nice short chapters, and always 50, so u know where u are. But seriously, and to turn the question round, what are the merits of a long novel in the 21st c.?

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