Tuesday 21 May 2024

Reading 2024 - Various Continued: the Effect of Time on Humour

I have never forgotten a party my mother gave not long after she and my father divorced in the mid-1960s. My mother's best girlfriend arrived first. She and my mother stood by the window of our first floor drawing room and my mother pointed out a bright turquoise mini just drawing up. "That's Patrick Campbell", my mother told her friend. "Whatever you do don't mention the colour of his car as he's furious about it."

To my surprise some time later, when my mother's friend and Patrick Campbell found themselves standing side by side at the window at the edge of what was by then a throng of people, I heard my mother's friend open a conversation by saying:

"Look at that car - isn't it the most hideous colour? Can you imagine who would drive such a frightful thing?"

Campbell was at the time considered to be hilarious. He had come into our orbit because he was supposed to be writing something with a woman who lived across the street. I don't know if their collaboration bore fruit but the woman certainly left her husband for Campbell, and the husband subsequently killed himself. 

The events of this part of my life disturbed me as a child and they still do, while also puzzling me and making me feel a little sad.

The one thing I continued to cling to, regarding the marriage of the people across the road ending and its subsequent consequences, was the idea that Campbell was hilarious. In some obscure way, I felt that might give him license to behave badly. 

His manner suggested he believed himself funny. The reactions of others suggested they did too. I had never read anything he wrote, so I had to rely on the judgments of others - until the other day, when I saw two of his books in a secondhand bookshop. I bought them, thinking that, homewrecker though he had seemed to be, I would at least be entertained.

I wasn't. His pieces struck me as thin, uninspired and plodding. At some point, I might include some in a separate blog post to prove my point - or possibly hear from people who laughed uproariously and will accuse me of missing the point. 

Perhaps the problem is that humour dates. Or it might be something to do with Campbell's style going out of fashion. Yet Three Men in a Boat was published ages before Campbell became well known and it remains the funniest book ever written.  And as for style going out of fashion, Evelyn Waugh would have said that was a nonsensical proposition:

"Style", Waugh said, "is not a seductive decoration added to a functional structure; it is the essence of a work of art. The necessary elements of style are lucidity, elegance & individuality; these qualities combine to form a preservative which ensures the nearest approximation to permanence.”

The books I bought by Campbell are illustrated by Ronald Searle and his style has definitely endured. As a result I am still glad I bought them.

I also bought a collection of the essays Alice Thomas Ellis used to write for the Spectator. These were not quite as good as I had found them when I used to read them in the magazine, but they still had many enjoyable moments. Here are my favourites:

1. She remarks about contemporary architects - 

"I should like to round them up and make them live in a tower block. For ever. When you see what they've done to our cities for ever is not long enough."

2. She claims that when truly melancholy:

"I don't want to read PG Wodehouse. When I'm really, really low only Strindberg makes me laugh."

3. As I am alarmingly untidy, I like her description of her approach to important papers:

"My system with documents and letters is usually to stuff them into the handbag of the moment until I can't close it any more and then I stuff that into the bottom of the wardrobe and buy a new one."

and her observation that "rearranging things gives me the illusion that one is tidying up."

4. She describes some pictures as being "oddly sinister in the way that only the Victorians could achieve", which seems a good insight to me.

5. The book was published way back in 1988 but already Thomas Ellis is describing how living in London she experiences "the hopeless feeling that faceless and ruthless powers are in control - local councils for the most part - ripping up the paving stones at random, closing down the little shops and authorising the erection of nightmarish mega-stores."

6. When she gets going on her loathing for cardboard boxes, she becomes unhinged enough to be truly hilarious, especially when her loathing for cardboard boxes and her dislike for Blue Peter combine, with a side reference to her hatred of pine plantations, a hatred I was particularly pleased to discover someone else nurtures (or at least used to nurture) since I have found many people think pine plantations are fine - or even, almost unbelievably, rather nice.

When I have time I might even type out the whole cardboard box essay and put it here so that other people can enjoy it, since I assume the book is no longer obtainable except by chance.


  1. Even within the same work, humor may age differently. There are parts of Mark Twain's Roughing It that I find very funny, and other parts that are interesting chiefly as showing what the Americans of 150 years ago thought funny.

    1. Just read this, while on the subject of Twain. It did not inspire me to read the book in question but did remind me to reread Huckleberry Finn, which, to my complete astonishment, I really loved when I read it aged 16: