Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Humour (page 1 of 6)

A man of letters…

Dear Lupin… Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

dear lupinMemoirs told in letters are an endangered species these days. Who still writes letters to their nearest and dearest?  We tend to send a quick e-mail instead, and then we tend not to archive them. Our e-mails tend to be less formal and less revealing. There’s something especially poignant and attractive about reading other people’s letters, getting a little glimpse into their lives.

A huge hit of recent times has been Love Nina, by Nina Stibbe (my review here). Nina’s letters, sent home to her sister when she was nannying in London in the 1980s are witty, youthful and full of enthusiasm – it was a great time to be in London in your early twenties. A couple of years before Nina’s epistles came another bestselling volume of letters …

Roger Mortimer, who died in 1991, was a WWII veteran serving in the Coldstream Guards and after that a racing correspondent for the Sunday Times for nearly thirty years. His son, Charlie was born in 1952 and somewhat surprisingly, he had kept all his father’s letters to him over the years. Those published in Dear Lupin cover around twenty-five years, starting in 1967 when Charlie was at Eton.

Before I go further, I should explain that the title of the book Dear Lupin, comes from George and Weedon Grossmith’s comic novel Diary of a Nobody published in 1892. Lupin is the preferred name of the son of Mr Pooter. Pooter, a clerk in the City, is a Captain Mainwaring type, rather self-important and he doesn’t approve of his son’s social life. One day I must read this book – such is Pooter’s literary fame. Mortimer père comes across as having a very dry sense of humour in allying himself with Mr Pooter and his son with Lupin.

The book begins with a foreword by Charlie telling us about his father, then a dramatis personae – for many mentioned in the letters seem to have at least one nickname. This was useful to refer back to on some occasions. The letters follow, most with a comment by Charlie afterwards explaining some of the circumstances therein. Charlie, as becomes clear, is mainly a fan of the telephone. The letters begin in 1967 as Charlie is shortly to leave Eton without any qualifications at all. A few years later in 1970, his plan is to join the army, but not until he’s had a final fling in Greece. Roger writes with a long list of advice:

5. Try not to look like some filthy student who has renouced personal hygiene completely. The unwashed with long hair are looked upon with great hostility in certain European countries and it would be silly to be stopped at a frontier because you like wearing your hair like a 1923 typist.
6. If you do get into trouble, Interpol will soon find out you have a police record and that could be awkward. …
8. Take a small medicine box and plenty of bromo. You are one of nature’s diarrhoea sufferers.
9. Make sure all your headlights are adapted to the rules of the country you are in. [and so on]

[Charlie comments]
This is a final fling before rather an impetuous decision to join the Coldstream Guards as a squaddie in October. Due to a conviction for possession of marijuana I am not able to join as a potential officer. As the Colonel in Chief remarks to me in an interview, ‘If you were merely an alcoholic we wouldn’t give a damn.’

His spell in the Army doesn’t last long! Soon Charlie is living in Devon and trying out lots of other jobs – paint salesman, farming ‘of sorts’ and being a second-hand car dealer. Roger writes:

Dear Charles,
I suppose that writing a serious letter to you is about as effective as trying to kick a thirty-ton block of concrete in bedroom slippers, but I am a glutton for punishment as far as you are concerned.

Roger really does worry about his aimless and rather feckless son. He is concerned too, that it could all be his fault. Charlie’s mother, Cynthia, nicknamed Nidnod for some reason, is always off hunting and seems to hit the bottle in the evenings a lot – however she is beyond reproach.  Charlie continues to drift along, trying this and that, and Roger keeps him going with generous contributions along with demands to pay the phone bill after the occasions Charlie had stayed with his parents. Roger’s last letter of 1977 is particularly brief …

Dear Little Mr Reliable,
Thanks a million for doing the wood baskets as promised. My word, your employer is going to be a very lucky man!
D

[Charlie] It takes real skill and irony to craft such an effective dressing down in so few words.

To quote more gems from these pages would be to over-egg things. The letters continue into Roger’s retirement and last years, his sense of humour and air of genteel frustration never dimming. Charlie is a commitment-phobe in all senses of the word, gamely going through life from one small crisis to another, being bailed out by his long-suffering Dad who obviously loves him to bits, and Charlie loves him back. Charlie doesn’t really change much over the decades – he’s now in his early 60s, describing himself as a ‘middle-aged, middle-class spiv (mostly retired).’

Roger has a unique almost stream of consciousness flow in his letter writing – going from admonishments, to advice, to who has died recently, to his wife’s riding exploits, to gossip about the neighbours, to more advice, to news about the family pets and so on… without stopping to start new paragraphs – just everything butting up to together. This butterfly approach to letter writing, full of these non-sequiturs, could be compared with Charlie’s career!

I loved being in Roger’s company hearing about his unique-sounding family. The good thing is that Charlie’s two sisters, one older, one younger have also kept their letters and two more volumes of epistles from the Mortimer family are now available to read – Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter  and Dearest Jane: My Father’s Life & Letters – I shall be reading them both. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):
Dear Lupin…: Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger & Charlie Mortimer. Constable, 2011, paperback 208 pages.
Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter by Roger & Louise Mortimer. Constable, 2013, paperback 208 pages.
Dearest Jane…: My Father’s Life and Letters by Roger & Jane Mortimer. Constable, 2014, hardback, 432 pages. (pbk in May 2015)

The Prisoner meets 1970s public information films – be very afraid…

Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

scarfolkI love reading creepy novels in autumn, and this year I’ve had the pleasure of not only reading the fabulous Horrorstör (see here), but also the even creepier Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler.

Anyone will be able to enjoy this book, but to really get the most out of it, you need to have an appreciation of when it is set  which is firmly in the 1970s – a few years after The Prisoner and at the height of paranoia about the threat of nuclear war.

Between programmes, TV was full of those fatuous public information films and patronising posters were on billboards everywhere.  We watched Dr Who from behind the sofa and cringed at a certain track-suited DJ (whom I had always reviled) on Top of The Pops.

As a child of the 1960s and teenager throughout the 1970s I was there! (Although a bit young for The Prisoner first time around.)  Discovering Scarfolk brought it all back!

A real Hamlyn Guide from the 1970s from my shelves

A real Hamlyn Guide from the 1970s from my shelves

Again, like Horrorstör, this book is impeccably well-designed. The cover is in the style of a book very much in the Hamlyn guide mould with the san serif Helvetica font. When I first saw the book, I had to do a double-take (again) not seeing beyond the cooling towers at first glance – then you see the eye’s pupil and read the sticker flash and it dawns that this will be an hilarious horror spoof.

Let me tell you about the text a little…

The Introduction is by Ben Motte, Editor of the International Journal of Cultural Taxidermy. He tells the reader that it contains:

 a selection of archival materials pertaining to Scarfolk, a town in North West England, which is just west of northern England, though its precise location is unknown.’

Motte had been sent a large parcel of said papers including a worn copy of a 1970s’ tourist guide to said town. The papers are well-thumbed and ‘accompanied by often nonsensical annotaions.’ of which he realised he knew the author – one Daniel Bush (‘a fellow student when we read Telepathic Journalism at St Cheggers Pop Christ College, London, in the late 1960s.’).

Scarfolk poster 1It seems that Daniel was trying to get out of Scarfolk with his two young sons, but they disappeared at a motorway service station. Daniel was overcome and later found himself back in the town with two boys who said they were his sons…

Motte pieces together Daniel’s tale from all the papers, and in doing so gives us a portrait of this unique town.

What raises Discovering Scarfolk above Horrorstör is not only that it’s an even bigger design job – there’s scarcely a page-turn without a familiar yet different graphic that makes you look twice. Each paragraph too yields nuggets of pure 1970s gold that I devoured as I carefully read this book – I didn’t want to miss any, often chuckling out loud.

As you can see from the scary (but not the scariest illustration by far) Scarfolk information poster above, immense attention to detail has been taken to make it appear as if it had come out of a parcel folded up. Book covers have scuffed corners, pages are foxed, typed reports are slightly fuzzy, colours are often faded; all subvert familiar images from the period.

An important note on the bottom of each Council poster etc. says:

For more information please reread this poster.

This one is real!

Compare it with the real thing!

I also loved how Littler, the author and designer, is also the mayor of Scarfolk. He has a truly warped sense of humour and I loved it.

Oh the joy of reading this book!  I don’t want to tell you any more about it, because it will just spoil the fun of discovering all this for yourselves!  You may want to visit the website, but I saved it until after I’d read the book.

I might be buying this for everyone for Christmas I loved it that much (folks, you have been warned!). (10/10).

I shall leave you with one more quotation – from the ‘Things to Do’ page:

Old Market Square
You can now take a tour of Scarfolk’s historical market square from the comfort of your own car. It is, or rather was, located where the Market View multi-storey car park now stands. The Market Square was originally situatioed approximately 22 feet below Level O between exits 0A and 0B and is commemorated with the sticker attached to the fire extinguisher by the disabled parking spaces.

Open 9am to 9pm,
Good parking facilities.

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Source: I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Discovering Scarfolkby Richard Littler. Pub October 2014 by Ebury publishing. Hardback, 192 pages.

For more information please reread this blog post.

A Comic Caper of Camelot and Cross-purposes…

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

the-table-of-less-valued-knights-187x300I read Marie Phillips first novel, Gods Behaving Badly, an hilarious story of the Greek gods and goddesses living out their lives in modern day North London, pre-blog, and I loved it – I can remember that without having to go back to my records.

These bickering deities, living in domestic squalor and trying to make ends meet while struggling to find a meaning to their lives in a world where few know about them were a delight. Aphrodite did phone sex, another god was a dog-walker; they were wonderfully raunchy and non-PC.

We’ve had to wait seven years for Phillips’ second novel – this time she gives us a comic take on Arthurian legend – was it worth the wait?

Imagine King Arthur’s court with the Round Table where Arthur sat with Lancelot, Gawain and the other famous knights. To his right is an empty chair, the Siege Perilous, ‘said to bring instant death to anyone who sat in it, though this was rumoured to be a lie invented by Sir Kay so that he’d have somewhere to put his coat.’ Further down the Great Hall of Camelot are two more tables: The Table of Errant Companions – which mostly seats those on their way up the Camelot hierarchy, and further away still is the lop-sided Table of Less Valued Knights, where those knights who are on their way down through being elderly, infirm, cowardly and not forgetting the disgraced sit.

Sir Humphrey du Val is a less-valued knight; relegated when a quest went wrong which we’ll find out about later. Being the only one left in the hall after the Pentecost feast, he surreptitiously accepts a quest when a late petitioner arrives needing help. The fiancé of Lady Elaine du Mont, from Tuft, was kidnapped from the tournée he should have won for Elaine’s hand in marriage, she wants him found asap. Sir Humphrey is not allowed to go on a quest, but doing this successfully could get him back up the greasy pole at Camelot. They set off, together with squire Conrad. Conrad, a teenaged half-giant by the way, rides an elephant, being too big for a horse.

Running parallel to Sir Humphrey’s quest, is the story of Martha, the new young Queen of Puddock, another neighbouring kingdom. She has been forced to marry Edwin, younger brother of King Leo of Tuft – and decides to run away on her wedding night, disguised as a young man. She meets the locum Lady of the Lake (Nimue is off with Merlin), who gives her an enchanted sword which will help her find her elder brother Jasper, who was presumed dead, but is still alive.

So we have a good set-up for a comedy of mistaken identity, feisty ladies and plenty of ‘Bob‘ moments (cf Blackadder) especially once the two stories collide, and then it charges on to the ending which sorts everyone out but was not quite as one might expect!

This book was great fun to read; it had some great moments and some really good gags, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Although there was a sprinkling of earthy language, it wasn’t as raunchy as GBB in particular. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of Arthurian and other dark-ages or medieval comedies, like Fool by Christopher Moore and The Food Taster by Peter Elbling. Monty Python & the Holy Grail and other films like A Knight’s Tale have a lot to answer for too, plus the aforementioned Blackadder. The result is that so much of it is familiar. However, Phillips, by giving her two ladies the lead for a large part of the novel does give the this Arthurian comedy an original and modern touch without introducing anachronisms.

It may not have been quite as funny as GBB, but it was so light-hearted I couldn’t help but enjoy it, and I hope we won’t have to wait so long for a third novel from Phillips. (7.5/10)

P.S. The Tables of Errant Companions and Less Valued Knights did ‘exist’ – they are mentioned in the post-Vulgate Merlin continuation of the 13thC French romances that are the source of much Arthurian legend.

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Table Of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips. Pub Aug 2014 by Jonathan Cape, hardback, 320 pages.
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (2007) paperback.

 

A novel way of revisiting children's classics…

Although I only studied it up to O-level, possibly my favourite subject at school was Latin. I continue to surprise myself by the amount of Latin I’ve retained over the years, but I do try to use it whenever I can.  Viz my blog’s Latin motto: Noli domo egredi nisi librum habesNever leave home without a book.  (Mottoes just have to be in Latin!)  On holiday in Normandy I revelled in being able to translate bits of the Bayeux Tapestry; I like reading Latin engravings on tombstones in old churches and so on. Now, I’m able to help my daughter with her homework (she doesn’t share my love for the subject, but is naturally good at it!).

winnie-ille-pohpu-001

Years ago I acquired Winnie Ille Pu and Domus Anguli Puensis translated by Alexander Lenard, which were first published in 1958 (and many other Pooh spin-off books not in Latin – The Pooh Perplex, The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet etc. Sadly, I’ve not kept any of them.)  Back to the Latin – it’s lovely to see Heffalump declined in Latin – Heffalumpus, Heffalumpum… It is an intuitive translation and is great fun for Latin-lovers.

One of my daughter’s favourite picture books as a child was Olivia by Ian Falconer. She’s since become a bit of a media star and had many sequels, TV series and merchandise, but that first Olivia book before all that was pure gold. She’s a precocious and genius of a piglet, of course! Fashion-conscious, arty, likes ballet and so on.

Recently I saw that it had been translated into Latin some years ago and The Book People had it in their sale – I just had to have it!

P1020163 (600x800)I love the bit where she’s bargaining with her mum over bedtime reading… her first bid is five. I’m going to have to buy the original again, aren’t I to make sure I got it all right, I think we passed it on, but it goes something like this…

‘No, Olivia, one only.’
‘Perhaps four?’
‘Two.’
‘Three.’
‘Done. Three.
But that’s enough!’

A piglet who enjoys reading – attagirl!

The one thing that all these books and the many parodies and cod-philosophical volumes have in common is that by their nature, you have to have read the original to enjoy the adaptation.

Go on, own up! Which books of this sort are on your shelves?  Be they foreign versions or parodies.  

I’ll also admit to owning several Asterix books in French (which is commendable), but also the funny (well it was back when I read it) Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings (1968).

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Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Olivia by Ian Falconer (The original book)
Olivia: The Essential Latin Edition by Ian Falconer trans Amy High.
Winnie Ille Pu by A.A.Milne, trans Alexander Lenard. O/P but S/H available.
Bored Of The Rings (GOLLANCZ S.F.) – Harvard Lampoon.

 

 

Are there dark days coming? I don't think so …

Apocalypse Next Tuesday by David Safier

apocalypse_next_tuesday_1A bestseller in Germany, Safier’s novel, translated by Hilary Parnfors, got me interested within a few words of the press release in which it told how Satan, who has come back to Earth as a dead ringer for George Clooney, is recruiting horsemen for the apocalypse next week.

Gorgeous, soon-to-be-married-and-thus-no-longer-available-for-us-me, George? Nooo! But you must admit that’s one hell of a hook for a contemporary comic novel about Armageddon, guaranteed to pique the interest of readers of both sexes.  You know how it’s going to go from the first paragraph, in which we meet Marie…

There’s no way that Jesus can have looked like that, I thought to myself as I sat in the parish office staring at the painting of the Last Supper. He was a Levantine Jew, wasn’t he? So why did he look like a Bee Gee in most of the pictures?

Marie, a single, overweight thirty-something has gone to discuss her forthcoming nuptials to Sven with the Reverend Gabriel. Gabriel is challenging her desire to get married in church because he thinks she doesn’t believe enough. ‘You were already doubting God during confirmation class twenty years ago,’ he quipped.

20140715_132241_resizedMarie definitely believes in the free will approach to the Almighty, unlike her atheist sister, Kata who is a cartoonist and draws a regular strip chronicling their sibling life. Kata’s cute philosophical cartoons crop up throughout the novel, whenever there is a big question to be asked.

When Marie has a crisis of faith and jilts Sven at the altar, she retreats home to her father’s house, where her Dad’s new even-younger-than-Marie, Belarusian bride Svetlana is in place. Everyone else is happy except her, and she hates Svetlana. She moaned: ‘I was now officially a M.O.N.S.T.E.R. (i.e. Majorly Old with No Spouse, Tots, Energy or Resources).’  As if to confirm this, the roof falls in on her, literally.

However, her life will change with the arrival of a thirty-something carpenter come to make the repairs called Joshua. ‘The carpenter’s gentle, dark brown eyes seemed very serious, as if they’d already seen a thing or two.’ Yup, you’ve guessed it. It’s the Messiah, returned to Earth to thwart Satan and reclaim Earth for God. Joshua hand’t reckoned on arriving in a little town in Germany though, let alone meeting a third rather outspoken and tomboyish Mary in his life.

What follows is one of those When Harry Met Sally type of romances, with added Satan doing nasty things in the background.  Joshua has a lot of wising-up to do to exist in the 21st century – being nice isn’t good enough. Marie finds herself falling for this old soul, and their one step forward, two steps back relationship is rather charming.  I’ll refer you to the Book of Revelations for an idea of how it all might end …

I did enjoy this book a lot, but I don’t think it was entirely successful as a comedy. Although I’m a non-believer, I did like the way it didn’t make fun of Jesus or God, just the situations they were in, but there wasn’t enough of Satan. He could have been more like Bulgakov’s devil, whipping up the townspeople more, creating more obstacles for Marie and Joshua to overcome. Instead he was mostly absent in the middle of the book, and just left them to get on with it.

The novel is set in a small town in Germany and, like the Asterix books, all the German idioms and references have been translated into the appropriate English ones. Sometimes this jarred a little; Marie would comment for instance, ‘There seemed to be more sex and crime in this book [the bible] than on Channel 5.’  There were many pop music references but I suspect that many, if not most of them, also appear in the German.

I found this novel chucklesome rather than laugh out loud, (unlike the wonderful Rev Diaries) but it would make a diverting summer holiday read. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Apocalypse Next Tuesday by David Safier, pub May 2014 by Hesperus Press, paperback 272 pages.

A little Saki goes a long way …

Reginald by Saki

SakiCompleteShortStories

Nearly two years ago now, we chose to read some Saki short stories as summer Book Group reading. In the event, everyone managed to pick different editions with anthologised different Saki stories, and due to holidays etc our discussions were rather truncated.

Tidying up the books around my bedside table this morning, I came across the book I purchased for that month – the Saki Complete Short Stories. My bookmark was at page 40 out of 563 – that’s as far as I got at the time, but it does mark the end of the first group of stories, known simply as ‘Reginald.’

Hector_Hugh_Munro_aka_Saki,_by_E_O_Hoppe,_1913

Saki, doesn’t he look sad (right), wrote his stories at the turn of the century, wittily satirizing Edwardian society. Many of them are very short and few run to more than a handful of pages. According to Wikipedia his pen-name may have come from either that of a cup-bearer in the Rubaiyat of Oman Khayyam, or a particular type of small monkey – both of which are referenced in his works. Hugh Hector Munro, his full name, died in France during WWI, killed by a German sniper’s bullet.

The one thing I found when reading his stories, was that a little Saki goes a long way. Each short story is so full of pithy and witty one-liners, reading more than a couple at a time feels like overdoing it, you can only take so much wit. I realised this again, dipping back into the book this morning. I also left loads of tabs stuck on the pages to mark particular witticisms.

I hope to keep reading on, a couple of stories at a time when the whim takes me, for they are wonderfully arch, and Reginald comes out with some shocking things that made me guffaw out loud. Though I haven’t even got past all the Reginald stories yet to his other man about town Clovis, yet alone the Beasts and Super-beasts set, I thoroughly enjoyed them. I shall now leave you with a selection of quotations from Reginald, but do share your thoughts on Saki too…

Reginald on the [Royal] Academy

“To die before being painted by Sargent is to go to heaven prematurely.”

“To have reached thirty,” said Reginald, “is to have failed in life.”

Reginald’s Choir Treat

“Never,” wrote Reginald to his most darling friend, “be a pioneer. It’s the Early Christian that gets the fattest lion.”

Reginald’s Drama

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

“… and, anyhow, I’m not responsible for the audience having a happy ending. The play would be quite sufficient strain on one’s energies. I should get a bishop to say it was immoral and beautiful – no dramatist has thought of that before, and every one would come to condemn the bishop, and they would stay on out of nervousness. After all, it requires a great deal of moral courage to leave in a marked manner in the middle of the second act when your carriage isn’t ordered until twelve.”

Reginald’s Christmas Revel

They say (said Reginald) that there’s nothing sadder than victory except defeat. If you’ve ever stayed with dull people during what is alleged to be the festive season, you can probably revise that saying.

Of course there were other people there. There was a Major Somebody who had shot things in Lapland, or somewhere of that sort; I forget what they were, but it wasn’t for want of reminding. We had them cold with every meal almost, and he was continually giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm under-things for the winter. I used to listen to him with a rapt attention that I thought rather suited me, and then one day I quite modestly gave the dimensions of an okapi I had shot in the Lincolnshire fensl The Major turned a beautiful Tyrian scarlet (I remember thinking at the time that I should like my bathroom hung in that colour), and I think that at that moment he almost found it in his heart to dislike me.

Reginald’s Rubaiyat

The other day (confided Reginald), when I was killing time in the bathroom and making bad resolutions for the New Year, it occurred to me that I would like to be a poet. […] and then I got to work on a Hymn to the New Year, which struck me as having possibilities. […] Quite the best verse in it went something like this:

“Have you heard the groan of a gravelled grouse,
Or the snarl of a snaffled snail
(Husband or mother, like me, or spouse),
Have you lain a-creep in the darkened house
Where the wounded wombats wail?”

Enough!  I can’t take any more!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Complete Short Storiesby Saki (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Complete Saki: 144 Collected Novels and Short Stories – for Kindle – just £0.99!

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