Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Just Like That

This grey weather finally seemed to have lifted last week, but has returned, and if it's been getting me down I dread to think what it's been doing to those people who live for summer. Our neighbours took off for a last-minute week in Corfu, in despair of ever seeing the sun again. I've never been there – Corfu, not despair – but feel I know it intimately, having read and re-read Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals so frequently in my childhood. Its only rival in my personal re-reading stakes is Catch-22, which I read and re-read in my teen years. Both books eventually acquired the patina and added bulk which come from the long-term two-way transfer of essences between a human and an inanimate object. No doubt scientists of the future will be able to reconstruct me completely from the biological and possibly mental traces transferred into those pages. And I suppose somewhere in the recesses of my memory complete texts of both books must be lodged.

The trouble with weather, jet travel between climate zones excepted, is that it's out of our control when it comes to managing the way we feel. Mood change, however, can be voluntary. Perhaps you have a joke, say, or a funny scenario you can think of at will, which is guaranteed to lift your spirits? Apart from a very few, very silly ones, jokes tend not to do it for me. In private, that is. A joke is essentially a social act, and really needs a teller and an audience to work. It takes a genius of "voice", like Wodehouse or Bill Bryson, to make a joke laugh-out-loud funny when read cold on the page. But I do have two scenarios, drawn from real life, that usually manage to cheer me up.

The first is the death of comedian Tommy Cooper. No, seriously. Cooper's fame will not have spread far beyond these rocky shores, I think we can be certain. He was one of a generation of British entertainers who emerged from the armed forces after WW2 equipped with the rudiments of an act, which they then developed and polished in clubs and "variety", going on to become mainstays of television during the 1960s and 70s. Most of the comics were slick and safe; the Goons being the obvious exception. Cooper's act, ingeniously, was based on being neither slick, safe, nor even particularly funny – his stage persona was the clumsy conjurer whose tricks never worked, accompanied by his trademark flustered cover-ups and lame patter. The act never varied, and why he was so successful is a mystery. He even became something of a National Treasure, beloved by impressionists, but ill-health and a drinking problem caused his career to tail off. In the end he collapsed and died on stage, on live prime-time television, with the audience laughing heartily as he was dragged behind the curtain, convinced it was all part of the usual performance of haplessness. The savage irony of which never fails to cheer me up.

The other thing is another tragic event that strikes a similarly ironic resonance that gives me the giggles. Sorry, I can't help it, I'm just made that way. As Oscar Wilde said, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." I'm just the sort of heartless, tasteless fiend who enjoys reading the Darwin Awards.

In 2009, at Seaton in Devon, a Polish man fell 300 feet to his death, having decided to pose for a photograph clinging on to the sheer cliff edge by a tuft of grass. I think what makes me laugh is the idea of a man feigning for the camera the terror of a man clinging to a cliff by a tuft of grass – "Aaargh!" – when he actually is a man clinging to a cliff by a tuft of grass. Or not so much feigning as parodying that terror, a split-second before experiencing it in reality, as the ironic quotation marks fall away from the situation. Aaaargh...

Oddly, on the very same day, a Russian man also fell 300 feet from another cliff near Folkestone. It doesn't seem to be known whether he was also larking about for his friends' cameras, but I wouldn't be surprised. I understand that both Poland and Russia are very wide and quite flat, but you'd think the concept of a 300 foot sea-cliff, and its accompanying perils, would surely be easy enough to grasp.

If all else fails, though, I think of novelist Arnold Bennett who died of typhoid, contracted by drinking a carafe of tap-water in Paris in 1931, against the waiter's advice, just to prove it was perfectly safe. If that doesn't cheer you up, there's nothing more I can do for you. You probably do need a holiday in Corfu. Watch out for those cliffs, though, and do listen to the waiter.


Martin Hodges said...


The two books you mention, along with 'Cider with Rosie', are the books I have re-read most often. I think I might be adding David Mitchell's 'Black Swan Green' to that list, eventually.

Mike C. said...


I don't know "Black Swan Green" -- I do think one of the two David Mitchells needs to get a deed-poll job, though... Too confusing!

Funnily enough, I rarely re-read these days, except by accident. My memory for characters and scenarios is so poor that I can get a quarter-way into a book before thinking, "Hang on..." I fact, it's sufficiently poor that I generally plough on, anyway, as it might as well be something I haven't yet read.


Zouk Delors said...

Tommy Cooper: maybe the funniest man ever, who could bring the house down before saying a word, just by the look on his face. His last appearance is on Youtube, but why not watch clips of his (2) guest appearances on "This Is Your Life" instead, and see the likes of Spike Milligan weep with laughter (you might too):


amolitor said...

I loved the lesser Durrell tremendously until his wife's name began changing, seemingly in each successive book, and it began to seep in to my youthful mind that he was actually a fairly awful fellow. Funny as hell, though!

Mike C. said...


Yes, I had the curious experience of trying to get my kids to read him -- you'll LOVE this!! -- only to find they couldn't get into it at all, not least because his language exists in a pre-70s space where arch references to natives mispronouncing words were considered the essence of dry wit... Pretty much unreadable, apart from "My Family" which is still a classic.


Mike C. said...


On the subject of Durrell, for years I've been trying to figure out which book contains a scene where he and some gauchos roast meat over a fire in a special square-cut clearing in a wood? I'm beginning to suspect this is actually one of those vivid dreams, and not in a Durrell book at all!


Mike C. said...

Duh! Funny, how often just asking the question in itself can supply the answer... The book in question is not by Durrell at all, but "Zoo Quest in Paraguay" by David Attenborough, that genuine Living National Treasure. I've puzzled over that one for decades, and solved it myself in five minutes...