Thursday 12 November 2015

World's funniest sentence

Not aphorisms, or witticisms, and certainly not jokes and smart-arse one liners. What I'm after are sentences (and sometimes a series of sentences) that are funny in themselves, but which rely on a context for their effect.

This was prompted by my off-the-cuff remark recently that the author Anthony Buckeridge - creator of the immortal schoolboy Jennings and his pal Darbishire - would be hard to beat, on the strength of Darby's flailing attempts to say, following a bicycle crash: "My black back brake block's broken!" (from Jennings's Diary). At the age of eight or nine I could think of nothing funnier, apart from his regular cry of "Fossilised fishhooks!"

I haven't given much thought to what follows but here, in no particular order, are some favourites:

1. 'Perhaps this will refresh your memory'. It's the caption to a cartoon by James Thurber. You'll need to look up the image of course, if you don't know it already.  Brace yourself.

2. 'I shall sit here,' the Footman remarked, 'till tomorrow - ' At this moment the door of the house opened, ... 'I shall sit here,' he said, 'on and off, for days and days. 

The great Peter Cook found these lines from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  particularly hilarious. He 'did' the voice of the frog Footman as a dimwit yokel. 

3. From Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet. I can' find a copy but I recall the end of a lengthy episode in which the titular heroes decide to become farmers and after a scrupulous study of all the literature and heavy investment in infrastructure and feed, attempt to raise pigs, This culminates in the simple and deadpan line:

                             The pigs escaped and bit people. 

4. When Lauren Bacall first met Humphrey Bogart on the set of To Have and Have Not she reportedly told him: 'Without my glasses you're a good-looking guy.'

5. P. G. Wodehouse of course - but where to begin? I'd plump for 'Some girls are the sand in civilisation's spinach'. That will have to do for now. Or Jeeves, in his 'stately procession of one'.

6. "Advanced, forthright, signifficant".  It's Nigel Molesworth, nailing the modish young philosopher Colin Wilson. That double f makes me happy. Geoffrey Willans!

7. George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody. Too many bone-dry lines to savour. But I'll go of the moment when Mr Pooter lowers himself into a very hot bathtub (which he has recently decorated in Pinkford's red enamel paint). Here's the passage, and I'll reveal the particular sentence that melts my butter afterwards:

    On moving my hand above the surface of the water, I experienced the greatest fright I ever received in the 
whole course of my life; for imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood. My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery, and was bleeding to death, and should be discovered, later on, looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Madame Tussaud’s. My second thought was to ring the bell, but remembered there was no bell to ring. My third was, that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved with boiling water. I stepped out of the bath, perfectly red all over, resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East–End theatre. I determined not to say a word to Carrie, but to tell Farmerson to come on Monday and paint the bath white.

What reliably makes me shake with laughter is "My second thought was to ring the bell, but remembered there was no bell to ring." We all have moments like that. Or days.

8. "The fleet's lit up" Lieutenant-Commander Thomas 'Tommy' Woodroffe (1899–1978) was a British naval officer, broadcaster and writer. After his retirement he became a commentator for BBC Radio. 

From the fairly-reliable Wikipedia entry on the great man:

   In 1937 he was to describe the Spithead Review from his old ship the battleship HMS Nelson. Apparently he met some of his former colleagues before the broadcast and drank to the extent that his broadcast, still known today by his repeated use of the phrase "the fleet's lit up", was so incoherent he was taken off air after a few minutes and suspended for a week by the BBC Director-General John Reith.

9. 'I'm picky'  Isabelle Huppert. when asked how she can be both a nymphomaniac and a virgin, in Hal Hartley's wonderful indie movie Amateur.

10. 'Nobody's perfect' Over-exposed perhaps, but still a hell of a line, from Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot. And it's also true, which is a bonus.

11. 'He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy'. 

12. 'Hard boiled eggs and nuts' says Ollie straight to the camera, understandably disgusted by Stan's 'gift' in County Hospital.

13.  'Swipe me how glittering' (or any number of glum ejaculations from the lad himself, Tony Hancock).

14.  Hardly a joke, more an expression of a world view, and therefore admissible: an opening line from Ken Dodd, at the start of an epic one-man show exploring the limits of language and human endurance: "What a beautiful day! What a beautiful day for sticking a cucumber through the vicar's letterbox and shouting "THE MARTIANS HAVE LANDED!"

15. O could hardly overlook this one: Collapse of stout party It's not so much the mildly salacious sentence that triggers the moment, but the inexorable descent into inarticulate sobs and gurgles that's so compelling. A worthy conclusion - and companion piece to number 8 (above).

More to follow, perhaps.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

On Julian Maclaren-Ross

Last week - Tuesday November 3rd to be precise - marked the anniversary of the death, in 1964, of the wonderful writer Julian Maclaren-Ross.

So this is a belated blog, prompted by the great Soho chronicler's passing, just over half a century ago. He died broke and it was only a few years ago that, thanks to the heroic efforts of the  journalist Virginia Ironside and members of the Sohemian Society, a gravestone was belatedly commissioned and put in place. I was present at the ceremony and delivered the following heartfelt doggerel, as whiskey was poured over the elegant headstone and cigarettes left, for what use is an afterlife without booze and baccy?

Maclaren Ross is the subject of one of the very best literary biographies you'll ever read:  Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia by Paul Willetts.

The poem was, and is, dedicated to Julian's son Alex.

Lines to Mark the Unveiling of a Headstone

For Alex Maclaren-Ross

Dear Julian Maclaren-Ross,
     You wouldn’t give a tinker’s toss
     For all this fuss. This is for us – the living.
We’re here to perpetrate an act of giving.

It’s true our congregation’s small in number -
     Not sure what quorum constitutes a wake.
     We’ve interrupted your eternal slumber
To celebrate a dandy and a rake,

Who loved the rough sodality of pubs,
     Cocoon’d by fugs of gossip, banter, quips,
     Spoofing the hours away in coppers, tanners, bobs;
And pints of  bitter, scotch and filter tips.

You have a headstone now. It’s kindly meant -
     Confirming you as WRITER AND BOHEMIAN,
     And elected unopposed as president
Of a club that we - don’t snigger! - call Sohemian.

We’ve gathered here today for this unveiling -
     Your unmarked grave now marked for all to see.
      I’m pleased to say the atmosphere prevailing
Is one of simple camaraderie.

Alex is here, your son - a grown man; 
     (There wasn’t time for you to get acquainted);
     He knows you now as well as a son can,
Aware you’re never likely to be sainted.

We love your tales of squaddies, spivs and chancers;
     Of clots and colonels, pukka sahibs, drunks;
     Of chaps in digs, of salesmen, tarts and dancers,
How some are decent types and others skunks.

Your style, M-R, is simple, tough and supple -
     You buttonhole your reader with each word;
     You’re free of bullshit, cliché, cant and waffle,  
And have a master’s sense of the absurd.

Are you surprised you’re more read now than ever?
     That most of what you wrote is back in print? 
     Your critics and your public think you’re clever,
(Of Love and Hunger must have made a mint).

You have an active afterlife as Trapnel,
     It can’t be long before you get a plaque
     Or some such reputation-forging shrapnel.
It’s fair to say at last you’ve made your mark.

But where are they, those other Forties spirits?
     Where’s Sister Anne and Tambi, Nina, Ruthven?
     Well thanks to your biographer Paul Willetts
They’re here, and still by fear and loathing driven,

As though they’ve just nipped out to bounce a cheque,
     To lunch with Rotha, hoping for a break;
     At work to salvage something from time’s wreck -
A paragraph that isn’t glib or fake.

Their fading Wheatsheaf shades prop up the bar,
     A pissed-up mist of spite and spleen and ink;
     They’ve settled in, they won’t be going far;
A miasma of pills and fags and drink.

But let me at this point bring in and honour
     A quondam Chelsea Bird with whim of iron
     Who got Tom Waugh to carve your name upon a 
Granite block (with words that suit Lord Byron).

You’d really like Virginia, I think:
      A writer too – commanding large advances.
      She’d match you yarn for yarn and drink for drink
And show you how to cope at beat club dances.

Now let’s agree, before we get the rounds in -
     What‘s great about your stuff? Why does it last?
     What is it that your writing most abounds in?
What keeps it fresh, unfettered by the past?

Good questions all, but I don’t have a clue.
     Can’t do lit. crit., and think it would be mad to.
     But here’s a wonky insight, partly true:
You wrote the way you did because you had to.

Hounded by creditors, landlords and editors
     Clobbered by taxes and exes and sex, 
          Fizzing with benzedrine, twitchy with dexies 
               Years of bad eating and mountainous debts.

You fabulous, bibulous arch self-inventor -
     With cane and dark glasses and camel-hair coat.
          Seductive, productive, intransigent mentor
               To thinkers and drinkers and this pisspoor poet.

Enough! It's nearly time for us to go.
     So from us all and all your readers too,
     It's “Toodle pip old man” and “Cheerio”,
We're off to raise a glass or three to you,
Dear Julian Maclaren-Ross,
     Who wouldn’t give a tinker’s toss

     For all this fuss. Please join us – the living.