Monday, 5 July 2010

Books at bedtime: childhood reading

'Sorry, kid,' said third mate Brown. 'Your brother dived to help a chum who had just been pulled down by a shark. That's the last we saw of either of them.'
'But you don't really know that he died,' Roger insisted.
'Look, kid,' Brown explained patiently, 'when a man goes down and doesn't come up, there's only one answer…'
Whale Adventure, Willard Price

The pleasure of long summer evenings hasn't much changed since childhood, the addition of alcohol notwithstanding. At my boarding school, lights out was half-past-seven but in summer the evening light trickling through thin curtain allowed the bookish child to read till sleep came.

Francis Spufford has written about going back to the classics of his childhood and, over the past several years, I have picked up the odd, half-remembered tome from when I first arrived in England. An early diet of Tintin and Enid Blyton was soon augmented by teachers' recommendations as I worked my way through the school library.

I particularly remember devouring the works of Willard Price in the blue-filtered light (later on, under less supervision, these evenings were spent climbing out windows into the innocent school grounds). These largely '60s 'adventures' feature the exploits of two teenage brothers, Hal and Roger Hunt - sons of an animal collector, allowed to travel the world and put themselves in a series of precarious situations.

Often accompanied by exotic natives like 'the Polynesian man, Omo,' the boys' relationship with those they encounter is generally little better than Tintin's; patriarchal, if well-meaning ('Bwana, quick, help us,' - African Adventure). I had forgotten how didactic these books are; a whale-hunting adventure is full of detail on the fineties of chasing these creatures that would put Herman Melville to shame.

This is just a little bit on the spout of a whale: 'Now we know that the column of white is steam, not water. The giant of the deeps is letting off steam. The air that he has held in his lungs during his half-hour or more beneath the sea is forcibly expelled. Having been retained so long within the warm body of the whale the air is at the blood temperature of whales and humans, about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.' There's much more in this vein.

The humorous works I was reading by a couple of authors at the time still stand up, however. Giovanni Guareschi's little world of Don Camillo satirises life in an Italian town split between the Communist mayor Peppone and Catholic priest Don Camillo, who is no less fiery as his adversary. (Don Camillo is quick to resort to his fearsome fists but is often restrained by Christ, who comes down off the cross to advise his representative.) A wonderful propaganda that succeeds thanks to Guareschi's tidy plotting, its even tidier little illustrations still bring a gleam to the eye.

For a boarder, Anthony Buckeridge's tales of mischievous scamps Jennings and Derbyshire had a particular resonance, but his comedic writing still glows. When the institution of boarding school received a rose-tinted reappraisal in the wake of Harry Potter's success, there was some hope Buckeridge may receive his due but it didn't happen, unfortunately.

I tend to pick up these odd books by chance, and rarely, in second-hand bookstores. For years I searched for an early school book by PG Wodehouse, Tales of St Austin's. Though not as funny as his later oeuvre - Buckeridge is the master of this realm - it has a charming atmosphere, not least when he tackles cricket. As the book's foreword explains: 'PG Wodehouse enjoyed his public-school days at Dulwich and wrote the stories and pieces in this collection when he was a bank clerk in the City, aged 20 and 21, because he was determined to earn enough by writing to satisfy his father that he could be a writer and not a banker…' (The stories were mostly published in a magazine called The Captain and were collected by A&C Black in 1903.)

I remember lying on the edge of playing fields reading what would have been this same imprint (pictured). I've never trusted those who profess childhood as the best days of your life, but there's certain pleasure revisiting its best pages.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Comedy gene or, the funny bone?

The other night I saw Zadie Smith at Book Slam reading from her latest book, a collection of essays. She read a lovely piece from a couple of years ago about her father, their shared love of comedy and his death. She describes her father, Harvey, as a comedy snob: 'He objected to joke merchants… He was allergic to racial and sexual humour, to a far greater degree than any of the actual black people or women in his immediate family.'

Their particular favourites were the Goons, Monty Python, Steptoe, Hancock and Fawlty Towers. It's a beautifully constructed essay, and terrifically moving, though I don't entirely agree with her take on the current British comedy circuit, of which one of her brothers, Doc Brown, is part.

I seem to share a love of a certain type of comedy with my father, though he died when I was young, and at a time before VHS or DVDs could have cemented in me the routines of the Marx Brothers, for instance. In the Smith family's wood-cabinet music centre, 'comedy records outnumbered the Beatles'. I don't remember us having any comedy records, though I do recall playing the Beatles' blue and red greatest hits compilations, so it's a mystery how this particular comedy gene was passed down. (I used to swap between the albums as my favourite tracks are split over the two: Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane.)

I love word play, always a favourite for non-native English speakers, one liners and even funny accents. Take this banter from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, between the judge and the heavily accented Chicolini: 'That sort of testimony we can eliminate.' 'At'sa fine, I'll take some.' 'You'll take what?' 'Eliminate. A nice, cold glass eliminate.' My mum hates Woody Allen, whose mining of a particular character, his own, I cherish; here's Alvy Singer's sardonic assessment of Diane Keaton's parking in Annie Hall: 'Don't worry, we can walk to the kerb from here.' (What style, what grace - see picture.)

I wonder if we would have found a bond in Blackadder, Father Ted or Friends, whose cast so mastered their lines. Just think of thick Joey's complaint when best friend Chandler does the dirty on him: 'You're so far over the line, you can't even see the line. The line is a dot to you.'

My mother was reminded last week, by a track Frank Skinner chose on Desert Island Discs, that my father also loved George Formby. Strangely, I always thought, if I had a newspaper column, I'd name it after Formby's most famous line: 'Turned out nice again.' There's a sentiment worth celebrating.

Friday, 2 July 2010