ELIZABETH QUIGLEY .0n the lighter side of Christmas reading
THE psychology of laughter, the philosophy of the joke, are not things to go into deeply in a mere short review of funny books. But the questions keep turning up wherever there are jokes-why is that funny to me and not to him?and above all where there's that most self-conscious of prolonged jokes, the funny book.
Coldly, out of their time and their immediate relevance, jokes and cartoons are regularly collected into books, and people are asked to laugh at them all over again. These funny books are both the easiest and the hardest of presents to give.
They are the easiest if you know your person thoroughly, the hardest if you don't; for nothing
showns up your ignorance of another more than expecting him to laugh at something that leaves him cold. Better give curling tongs to a beatnik or ice-skates to a Congolese than put Osbert Lancaster in the wrong Christmas stocking.
So, as everything about humour is intensely personal, criticism in the case of funny books is almost wholly subjective. To say a funny book isn't funny just means you don't find it funny (some may); to say it is, is just to say the opposite (some mayn't).
Of course there are occasionally simple sunny books that would seem to do for anyone. and such a book is Love-letters to the Beatles (Blond, Ss. 6d.), selected by Bill Adler, with drawings by Osborn, a set of short, weird, heartfelt and wildly funny cries from the girls of America.
True, a couple of boys write in ("Dear Beatles, I am a sixteen year old boy and I can't seem to get any girl friend. Could you mail me the names of any girls you don't need").
But most of the letters, of course, are from the fans: "dear john, i love the way you breathe in and out!!! love, Priscilla; "Dear George, Marry me. I promise I won't be a drag, love Alice", "Dear Ringo, I have a nose like yours and I am a girl .. • so what should I do? Sincerely Betsy"; "Dear Paul, Do you still like to ride backwards on a bicycle like it says in the paper or have you learned to cope
with society? Yours truly, Miss Lucy Walker".
As a plain source of innocent merriment 1 see few things to beat it just now.
(Murray 5s.) is a small book
of his pocket cartoons from the Daily Express during this year and last. Twelve months after they were made his comments are still pointed, his jokes still hold. The Beatles, the Bomb, topless swim suits and goahead churchmen, Fanny Hill, Profumo-there was plenty of ammunition.
Mr. Lancaster is clearly fond of the clerical joke. the nun at a beauty contest draped in a ribbon labelled Miss Vatican City, the monk with an overgrown tonsure in his eyes saying "Pax vohiscum! Yeah! yeah! yeah", or "The Archdeacon can say what he likes but there's no denying that green stamps at Evensong is packing the customers in at St. Botolph's".
Very occasionally he toughens into direct political comment: even the chinless Willie Littlehampton, as he broods over the headline "Ike backs Barry", sees a vision of Hindenherg endorsing Hitler, And Maudic Littlehampton. talking endlessly, often expresses the wilder common sense.
Semmes cartoons for Paris-Match and Punch are collected in Nothing is Simple (Macdonald, 25s). a handsome nonsense hook of generalised jokes on modern life that cross the Channel easily because they apply anywhere where people live in flats. have cars and television, and are in general snarled up in the artefacts of contemporary living.
There are a few jokes about the French passion for litigation. and one or two medieval ones involving castles and battering rams; but mostly they are the universal kind about knocking on the ceiling to stop the row upstairs, making faces through a car window, knowing what to do at the seaside in the rain, and having a staff photn*r'iph taken. Timothy Birdsail's cartoons are in another category altogether and the book entitled Timothy (M ichael Joseph, 30s.) shows his immense originality and attrac
tiveness a n d something of his range, and makes one feel more than ever, a n d more personally, the poignancy of his death at the age of 27 last year.
Michael Frayn and Amber Gascoigne edit it, Mr. Casco igne contributing an introduction. It includes some of his early "Little cartoons" for the Sunday Times, some of his later work for the Spectator (whose political cartoonist he became a year before his death), cartoons of all sorts, including strip cartoons, straight drawings of his family and street scenes in London and in Italy.
In the short three years of his working life his drawing developed and varied extraordinarily, ranging from the sketchiest and briefest of comments to the most grandiose and elaborate. Shortly before his death he became nationally known for his work in "That Was the Week that Was".
This book is more than a pious memorial to a young man who teas clearly much loved and regretted; it shows the measure of his loss in terms of work, gaiety and wit.
Michael Frayn, Cambridge friend of Birdsall's, is another original-in writing, not in drawings. Like all good humorists he conjures his own world, and familiarity with it enhances one's enjoyment. On The Outskirts (Collins, 16s.) is a selection from his column in the Observer, where the subjects generally crunched up in the humorist's columns are crunched up with an enormous difference in technique and sheer wit.
Politics, sociology, modern manners-the topics are those of Lancaster or of anyone else you like to name, but the eye and above all the car is distinctly Frayn's, and here above all you must be careful to suit him to his audience if you think of putting him in anyone's stocking.
It isn't so much a matter of acquiring a taste for him as of having some sort of innate affinity. You smile, you purr, in inward nward sort of way, or else you don't, and probably never will.
At first sight the satire seems
mild and good tempered, Freya never raises his voice, is decep tively easy to read, unforced, Pala.
table, and smiling. but he has echoes and disturbances and is the rare sort of humorist whose characters actually stay in your head and seem to go on commenting about other things which really means you wonder, on
other occasions, what Frayn would have to say about it.