Thinking about literary influences …
When I was very young (A.A. Milne being, of course, a literary influence), around nine, I bought, through our primary school book club, a copy of 1066 and All That.
Wait on – the Wikipedia entry’s right here:
‘1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates is a tongue-in-cheek reworking of the history of England. Written by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman and illustrated by John Reynolds, it first appeared serially in Punch magazine, and was published in book form by Methuen & Co. Ltd. in 1930.’
In Standard Three at Titirangi Primary School in 1970 pupils ordered paperback books through a catalogue. After saving up our cents in our Kashins – dark blue plastic elephant piggy banks distributed to school children by the Bank of Auckland – we filled-out our book orders and brought our money to school to be posted off by the teachers. I was a good saver in those days. I bought quite a few books; this one I read over and over again.
My copy of 1066 and All That would have cost around 75c, which was considered a bit steep. (A packet of Du Maurier or Rothmans cigarettes was then about 25c; I was sent up the road to buy them for my mother’s husband and my grandmother, respectively. My grandmother moved on to Benson and Hedges and when I took up smoking they were what I started on.)
Without understanding much of it, way before I appreciated what the year 1066 meant in terms of history, I was entranced by the word play in the writing. I was pleased with myself for getting the jokes, when I did. On the back of the book a mock publisher’s blurb read ‘This slim volume…’, referring to both the thinness of the book and its lightweight content.
The only other time I’d come across double meanings of this order was when I visited my childhood friend Sarah. Near the front door of her house there was a sign on the wall which read ‘No knives or stilettos.’ Sarah’s mother Eileen explained it to me: there was a type of knife known as a stiletto, a sharp thin knife meant for stabbing people, not filleting fish. The joke was that stilettos were also shoes with pointy heels (how we loved them in the 80s) and she didn’t want anyone walking over her floorboards in them. Or, obviously, bringing knives into the house. I was bothered by the notice; it was a sinister adult joke, bringing with it the thought that someone might otherwise come in with a knife.
Nobody around me used language in the silly, punning way of 1066. The book was funny in new a way. It was comical and to me, at nine, sophisticated. You could describe it as ‘Pythonesque’, which covers ‘silly’ and the piss-taking of traditional approaches to English history.
History was, and can be still, presented as a monolithic set of circumstances, as a linear series of external events involving countries, dates, governance, war, colonial expansion, exploits, seafaring, adventuring, exploration, exploitation, inventions, imperialism and other manly concerns. Women didn’t figure, unless they were queens or notable consorts, or perhaps the odd nurse, like the marvelously named Florence Nightingale. (The marvelously named Florence Nightingale. See how I’m expressing myself here? In the style of the time.)
Within 1066 and All That history was subverted, buggered about with. Reduced, its serious balloon popped. History was a tool with which to have fun with language. ‘Maharajahs, jhams and jhellies’ is a phrase that sticks, nearly 50 years later.
Sellar and Yeatman, a couple of chaps writing before WWII, gave a little girl in West Auckland an appreciation of a subtle, wordy, smart-arsey humour, like that of Edward Lear or Edward Gorey, but rollicking.
I can’t recall the last time I read 1066 and All That. My copy should still be in my mother’s garage; I hope so.
A while ago, I had a go at stand-up comedy. I wasn’t half bad, but I didn’t elicit belly laughs. A few sniggers and chuckles. A friend of mine, herself a successful comic, gave me some feedback: “It’s too intellectual, too cerebral, too wordy. You should swear more.”
Blame Sellar and Yeatman.