So often books that are advertised as “humorous” turn out to be about as amusing as having a bouquet of nettles stuffed down your gruds. The following is a list of ten writers whose prose has cheered me up, made me smile or made me laugh out loud.
Left: Terry-Thomas in 'School for Scoundrels', the 1960 screen adaptation of Stephen Potter's 'Lifemanship' books.
10. Mordecai Richler. Reason on list: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). Richler breaks a cardinal rule of story telling in this vibrant novel in that his hero is unsympathetic. Duddy Kravitz is a greedy little shit, obsessed with the dream of acquiring power, wealth and status (all symbolized for him in the dream of acquiring some unspoilt land by a lake). But the little swine is just so energetic, cheeky, and unrelenting in his pursuit of his goal that you can’t help but cheer him on. Above all there is a mad, youthful zeal coursing through the whole story which is thoroughly exhilarating. A film version of the book was released in 1974 starring Richard Dreyfuss, who, when the film wrapped, was reputedly convinced he had made a stinker that was going to sink his career. He quickly signed up to take a role in a small movie called Jaws directed by an unknown called Steven Speilberg to hedge his bets. In fact Duddy Kravitz was the most commercially successful Canadian film ever made at the time of its release. Jaws did OK too.
These days Richler is probably better known for the film version of his novel Barney’s Version, which also has a not particularly sympathetic main character who hits an all time low in the rat stakes when he falls in love with another woman on his wedding day. It’s a scene that might be regarded as rather far-fetched but in fact Mordecai Richler actually did fall in love with Florence Mann on the eve of his wedding to Catherine Boudreau. He later divorced Catherine and married Florence.
Richler frequently said his goal was to be an honest witness to his time and place, and to write at least one book that would be read after his death. I suspect that The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is that book.
9 David Niven. Reason on list: His bravura autobiographies The Moon’s a Balloon (1972) and Bring on the Empty Horses. David Niven’s son has said in an interview that when his father was dying of Motor Neurone Disease, “He was very stiff upper lip about it all. He told me: "Maybe this is God's way of saying you have told enough stories over the years and it's someone else's turn to be the life and soul of the party."
David Niven was such a consummate anecdotalist that he has probably never been bettered, and he would certainly be on my list of dream dinner party guests. To what extent his autobiographies are strictly true has been the subject of a great deal of conjecture and it has certainly been established that several of the incidents that he includes were actually purloined wholesale from someone else’s life (Cary Grant’s as it happens) but none of this makes the books any less entertaining. This is a man who would rather have sawn off his own arm than bore his readers.
And what a story he tells! It almost feels as though Niven had his own personal wicked deity, with a particularly twisted sense of humour and a low boredom threshold, watching over his life and occasionally interfering to spice things up a bit. Thus when, as a schoolboy, he decided to send a human turd to one of his peers as a prank, his personal demon arranged for the recipient to become dangerously ill while the gift was still in transit – so that the parcel was opened by a ward matron in the hospital where the lad was on his deathbed. True? I’m not sure if I care.
One of the things that make the books so utterly compelling is that the roller coaster ride is shot through with extraordinary tragedy. Thus it is beyond doubt that his adored first wife Primmie died at age 28 while playing a game of Sardines at the home of actor Tyrone Power in Los Angeles. She walked through a door believing it to be a wardrobe and instead plummeted headlong down a stone staircase.
Niven was very much an old-school English gentlemen with a highly developed sense of honour. When the Second World War broke out he had already become a star in Hollywood but he threw it all in without a moment’s hesitation and joined up despite the fact that the official advice from the British Embassy was that established British stars should stay. Churchill later thanked him personally. Niven saw action but, despite being inclined to talk and write at some length about anything and everything else (as long as it was amusing) he felt that it was unseemly to bang on about his war exploits – for the simple reason that, in his opinion, the real heroes were lying in serried ranks in war graves in France. However he did say that, when he was about to lead his men into action, he eased their nervousness by telling them, "Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But I'll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!"
A favourite nugget of information about David Niven is that at his funeral an immense wreath turned up, paid for by the porters at London's Heathrow Airport, along with a card that read: 'To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.' It’s an epitaph that speaks of a vanished age – but it’s a wonderful epitaph all the same.
8. Tom Sharpe. Reason on list: Riotous Assembly (1971) Indecent Exposure (1973) Blott on the Landscape (1975) Wilt (1976) The Throwback (1978) I shall always be grateful to Tom Sharpe whose scabrous anarchic novels I stumbled upon while at boarding school. So outrageous are they that I read them surreptitiously, fearing they may be confiscated, only to discover one day that my housemaster, dear old “Slug” Rouse, had a set of Sharpe’s novels (in the same editions I was reading) on the shelf in his living room. We even bonded, momentarily, over our shared love of the books before slipping quickly back into our entrenched positions of mutual mistrust. I recently re-read Riotous Assembly and it stood the test of time, being a viscous satire on Apartheid era South Africa replete with utterly obscene imagery and grotesque characters – perhaps the hallmark of his work.
7. Rudyard Kipling. Reason on list: Stalky and Co. First Published in 1899 Kipling’s tale of the goings on at a minor English public School churning out cannon fodder for the British Empire is hopelessly politically incorrect, and becoming more so by the minute; but I love it all the same.
Kipling does what novelists are constantly urged not to do – and that is write about himself. In fact he writes about his time as a pupil at the United Services College, at Westward Ho! in Devon (referred to in the book as “the Coll”) where he shared a study with his two pals Lionel Dunsterville and George Charles Beresford (named Stalky and M’Turk in the text). But instead of being an accurate account of these schooldays it is a heightened and idealized portrayal – a fantasy in which the three boys run rings around the whole school, making fools of everyone and anyone who is unfortunate enough to wander into their demonic little sights. Writing as an older and wiser man he is able to revisit his school days armed with his robust imagination and indulge in a shameless and thoroughly enjoyable romp.
That’s not to say it is completely inaccurate. As a schoolboy Kipling was fascinated by Dunsterville’s tactical and strategic genius in concocting scrapes and adventures for his little coterie and Dunsterville’s subsequent career (he became a General) certainly bore this out. Most of all Stalky and Co is on my list because it inspires me to delve into my own history in search of inspiration – but reminds me that in order to expect others to take any interest in such personal material you need to light fireworks underneath it – sending it into the stratosphere of entertainment.
6. PG Wodehouse. Reason on list: The Jeeves and Wooster novels. Plum’s work (the nickname derives from a shortening of his Christian name “Pelham”) is going out of fashion, which for him means that sales of his books in the UK are now running in the tens rather than the hundreds of thousands. It is certainly true that the world of Bertie Wooster and his trusty factotum Jeeves (which was, in any case, a fantasy world conjured up by the author for an American audience) is becoming irredeemably remote and irrelevant. However I have to include him purely for his prowess as a stylist. Wodehouse has always been admired by a broad range of writers for his consistency of voice and his deftness with language (Ben Elton, an old-school lefty, who might be expected to despise Bertie’s world of moneyed privilege, has confessed to being a fan). For myself, I am inspired by Plum every time I sit down to write. From him I learned that good fiction always has strong character or voice, giving it a lot more in common with acting than is generally acknowledged. I can well imagine that Plum would take a moment to get ‘in character’ before writing, building up an internal head of steam of posh twittishness before allowing his fingers to touch the typewriter.
5. Douglas Adams. Reason on list: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) Life, the Universe and Everything (1982) So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) Adams’ comic science fiction novels began life as a series of plays on Radio 4 and have since been adapted into a feature film but if, by some chance, all this has passed you by then you have a treat in store for you. I once made the mistake of enthusiastically – in fact feverishly – encouraging a friend to read these books and described in detail some of the intoxicatingly brilliant and imaginative ideas and incidents with which they are packed. Some time later he said: “You were right, they were great, but I kept coming across bits you had already told me about – so those bits were ruined. Then I began to suffer from a sort of creeping dread that I was about to encounter another bit you had ruined – which ruined the whole thing”. Fair comment – and I’m not going to say any more about them. However I can’t resist pointing out that the recent announcement that the first manned mission to Mars is in fact going to be a reality television show is just the kind of thing that Adam’s would have loved – and I’m sure he is smiling wryly about it on the astral plane he inhabits, having been cruelly taken from us in 2001 at the tender age of 49.
I am also a big fan of Adam’s The Meaning of Liff (1983, with John Lloyd) a dictionary of words, created by the two authors, to describe phenomenon for which no word currently exists. They use British place names to create new words, so for example Shoeburyness means "The vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat that is still warm from somebody else's bottom." Despite the dictionary format it ends up being a comic and poetic discourse on all those tiny little and previously uncategorized phenomena that make up so much if our lives. No toilet should be without this book.
4. Woody Allen. Reason on list: Getting Even (1971), Without Feathers (1975), "The Whore of Mensa" (1974) Side Effects (1980) and Mere Anarchy (2007)
Allen famously has a drawer where he throws scraps of paper with ideas on them and when he deems an idea to be unfilmable he instead turns it into a short story. A brilliant example is The Kugelmass Episode, about a CCNY professor named Sidney Kugelmass who is projected into Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary by a magic wardrobe and embarks on an affair with the eponymous heroin. Allen has always been good at flattering his fans by filling his work with highbrow references while running riot with the sacred cows of the liberal arts establishment. The ending, with Kugelmass being chased across a barren landscape by an abstract noun – due to book of grammar being thrown into the wardrobe, is priceless.
3. Jerome K Jerome wins his spot on my list for Three Men in a Boat (full Victorian title: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). Jerome K Jerome’s hugely famous and successful novel (which has never been out of print and was, for a long time, part of the official school syllabus in Russian and Turkish Schools) was first published in 1889 and although it’s appeal may have subtly changed it is still a delight. Telling the story of three friends who rent a camping skiff for a boating holiday on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford, this is a book that manages to capture an intoxicating spirit of innocent joy in simple pleasures. Reading it makes you want to recalibrate your dreams and ambitions and conclude that all you need to be happy is a couple of old mates, a canvas tent, a boat, a river, a badly behaved dog and some good old shite English weather. Another endearing feature of Jerome’s book is its meandering eccentricity. Amongst the comic set pieces, about such things as opening a tin of pineapples without an opener, there are long rambling digressions that have absolutely nothing to do with the main narrative and would probably be excised by a publisher were the book delivered fresh today. For example there is a wondrously detailed and evocative description of events leading up to the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede and even a note of deep tragedy in a sequence about the recovery of a dead woman’s body from the water. In fact Jerome’s book was inspired by a real trip up the Thames, which he took with his wife on their honeymoon.
The shaggy dog stories and irrelevances only add to the sense of euphoric freedom that infuses every page of the book – they seem to say; “not only is this a story about going on a holiday from mundane every-day life, but (sod consistency of tone) I’m going to take a holiday from mundane everyday editing”. While the vast majority of Victorian literature has become hopelessly fusty, wordy, and old- fashioned and almost all humour ages faster than a mayfly, Three Men in a Boat continues to charm – to say nothing of the dog.
2.Roald Dahl. Reason on list: My Uncle Oswald. I reserve a special place in my heart for Roald Dahl for the unfettered joy he gave me as a child when reading books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach but he wins his spot on this list entirely for his very ‘adult-themed’ My Uncle Oswald. This (admittedly short) work is unique for me in that it is the only novel I have read in its entirety at one sitting. Some time in the 1990s I awoke with a hangover in a flat in Notting Hill Gate in London and grabbed this book off a shelf in order to have something to read while I downed a cup of tea. I don’t want to give too much away but My Uncle Oswald tells the completely outrageous tale of what the eponymous Oswald does with a powerful aphrodisiac derived from the “Sudanese blister beetle”. You or I might simply employ it to seduce attractive members of the opposite sex but for Oswald this isn’t enough. He hatches a plan that is ludicrously far-fetched, deliciously disrespectful of crowned heads and sundry geniuses of the 20th Century, wickedly bawdy and a non-stop delight from beginning to end. Needless to say in my alcohol poisoned state I sat transfixed, occasionally letting out the odd bark of laughter, until I had polished off the whole frivolous, filthy hilarious thing. If you haven’t yet discovered this gem I suggest you take it on holiday.
1. Stephen Potter. Reason on list: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: Or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating (1947) Lifemanship: With a Summary of Recent Researches in Gamesmanship (1950), One-Upmanship: Being Some Account of the Activities and Teachings of the Lifemanship Correspondence College of One-Upness and Games Lifemastery (1952) .
Amongst my most cherished possessions is a complete boxed set of Stephen Potter’s ‘Lifemanship’ books. I only have to pluck one of these volumes from its snug housing and I am snorting out little irritating bursts of laughter within seconds. Potter gifted the word ‘gamesmanship’ to the world and his books are a master-class in sustaining a comic conceit. His idea was that the books summed up the teachings of a secretive shadow-world of men who had acquired skills (either at the headquarters at Station Road, Yeovil, or at various satellite colleges) that allowed them to always come out on top in any situation and generally ‘get one over on the other chap’ at every turn. This they achieve through a myriad of precisely documented ‘ploys’ and ‘gambits’. Hilariously there is a sense, as you read, that the books themselves are one huge ploy by the author to get ‘one up’ on you, the reader and he even has a chapter on ‘Writership’ in ‘Some Notes on Lifemanship’. The text is peppered with asterisks and other symbols directing you to exhaustive footnotes which are themselves little gems of intricate far-fetched wisdom and advice, as though the whole thing were an academic text intended for the serious student.
Potter landed on an undeniable and essentially truth: that winning – not only in sport but in life generally, is somewhat dependant on others losing – and they are more likely to lose, and you more likely to win, if you can undermine their confidence while building yourself up into something you quite plainly are not. Thus although the books are essentially absurd every page of it contains real wisdom and you can not but find yourself thinking “I might just try that”. In fact I once persuaded my father to try a bit of “Weekendmanship” when he was invited to a very smart country house weekend. Potter advises that you pretend to be an expert on the local birdlife and simply make up names for birds that you hear singing, then add the words: “as I believe they call it in these parts”, to cover yourself in case there is an actual expert within hearing. My father is in fact a genuine moth and butterfly expert so I advised him to take his moth trap (a harmless device) with him to stay with his millionaire acquaintance. It was a triumph, and by the end of the weekend the millionaires two young sons were rushing about with their ‘moth monitor books’ excitedly telling anyone who would listen that ‘uncle Simon’ would be opening the day's catch any minute. Rival quests, who had been banking on their expensive cars or glamorous jobs to bring them out ‘on top’ were practically running up white flags.
In the first book Potter claims that Gamesmanship was born during a game of Tennis during which he and his partner, C. Joad, soundly beat a pair of younger, healthier and superior players. During the game Joad interrupted play at a key moment and said to one of the opposition players: ‘kindly say clearly please, whether the ball was in or out.’ This threw them off badly, as it contained within it the suggestion that they had been doing something unsporting up to that moment (which they hadn’t). The younger players were soundly beaten and Potter wondered: ‘Could not this simple gambit of Joad’s be extended to include other aspects of the game – to include all games?” With this creation myth out of the way he is off - with his first chapter on “The Pre-game”, which opens with instructions on, ‘the processes of defeat by tension’, a detailed account of how to get your tennis opponent into a state of ‘flurry’ before the game. The entire sequence is recreated in almost precise detail in the wonderful School For Scoundrels – the 1960 film adaptation of Potter’s books, which I count amongst my top ten British films of all time. For a while my family organized an annual grass tennis tournament at which the words “hard cheese” (another Potter gambit, designed to build up a head of debilitating fury in your opponent) would be heard every time a point was lost. For die-hards there is a golf tournament called "The Potter Cup", held annually at Fenwick Golf Course in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
It may seem grotesque, even pretentious, that I award these dated books the number one spot on my list, and it is certainly true that they contain passages that have lost their comic power due to social changes. But I find that Potter still surprises me into bursts of loud laughter with the sheer dexterity of his wit, which is always based on exquisite observation. The books also raise an issue which is something of a bugbear for me. Wherever I go I am constantly finding myself having conversations with people (chiefly but not exclusively men) which consist almost entirely in them telling me how wonderfully they are doing in their work life, love life, and every other aspect of their uniquely blessed existence. If only more people would read Potter's Lifemanship books they might learn to develop a more cunning and imaginative strategy for achieving ‘one upness’ – and life generally would become far more entertaining. How much more amusing it would be if everyone turned up at a country house weekend with moth traps, rather than just their boasting gear.