The English Taste For Nonsense
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have before now dipped a toe into writing surrealist comedy – actually my first attempt at a book, ‘Letters From Home’ (unpublished) was created from a series of radio sketches I used to write, and had a distinctly surrealist flavour.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I wrote a second novel, ‘Gone With The Gin’ (unpublished), that also played with surreal stylings while I was finding my feet.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.