Sunday, 13 February 2011
Is There a Comic in the House?
We were reflecting on the David Lodge lecture to which we had both been on Wednesday and discussing the next speaker in the series, whose name I genuinely can't remember because it is someone of whom I have never heard. The main reason I haven't heard of him is because he is a stand up comedian and I'm afraid I have yet to find a stand up comic who makes me laugh. Everyone around me can be rolling in the aisles but I will just sit there looking bemused. Television sit-com is just as bad. There will be gales of laughter coming from the studio audience (OK, no real indication, I know but someone must find them funny or surely they wouldn't go on making them) while I sit shaking my head in amazement.
Perhaps it is to do with the fact that laughter these days seems so often to revolve around making fun of someone else's misfortune in a way which is frequently, or so it appears to me, to be needlessly cruel. We condemn then playground bully who makes fun of the lonely child who somehow fails to fit in, but it's acceptable if the bully is being paid vast sums of money to humiliate others in a wider public forum.
Anyway, I had decided that I didn't do laughter and that I must be the worst sort of social misfit - and then I read the next segment of Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing; the chapter in which she discusses what makes her laugh. Back they came flooding, all those occasions when I've laughed so hard that I cried. Wodehouse never fails whether it be Jeeves or Lord Emsworth, and she also mentions someone who in my mind is one of the great comic writers of all times, Gerald Durrell.
Hill talks of probably Durrell's most famous book, My Family and Other Animals, and I would rank that high up amongst my favourites as well, but for me the really funny books are those which detail his travels in search of rare animals for his conservation programme: Beasts in the Belfry, Catch Me a Colubus and above all The Bafut Beagles. For some reason I read the last of those in a hotel room in Paris and much to the distress of the other guests I was still chuckling as I went down to breakfast. Ah, these mad English!
As Hill says, what distinguishes authors such as Wodehouse and Durrell is their style. These are not writers out for a quick laugh, they are people who have something to say and say it with panache. You would want to read them whatever they were writing about simply because they know how to turn a beautiful sentence. I've spent this afternoon finding cheap copies of the volumes I remember best and in future when I worry about the state of my laughter gene I shall have somewhere to turn for reassurance.