Repost on one of my favourite subjects: kindly irony. Phil will be blogging tomorrow night: please excuse my absence at the pied-a-terres of my comrades from the blogosphere. I’m spending two days at the chalkface. I will be back in force at the weekend.
“Irony? Oh, no, we don’t get that here. You see, people ski topless here whilst smoking dope, so irony is not really a high priority.
“We haven’t had any irony here since, uh, about ’83 when I was the only practitioner of it, and I stopped because I was tired of being stared at.”
So begins the strange courtship of a big-nosed fire chief and a beautiful blonde astronomer.
The words are from the 1987 comedy Roxanne, and the speaker is modern-day Cyrano, CD Bales, aka Steve Martin.
These words spend a little of every day with me: because I am a practitioner who has never tired of being stared at.
Life goes one way, you say it is the opposite. Or: you understate the whole business. It’s funny.
Maddie took this a seven-league-bootstep further this evening when she sat down next to me, doubled up in helpless giggles.
The source of her amusement was one of Phil’s old Ladybird books.
Ladybird readers have helped children learn to read for almost 100 years, all told, and not all of those years, or books, are politically correct.
Leicester printers Wills and Hepworth worked out that printing small books for children would fill the time between their other lucrative print runs – producing material for car manufacturers Austin and Rover.
They are printed in clear, readable sans-serif type, and the books are graded in difficulty. But they do have a few bloopers in their early publications. A is for ass, or armoured train, according to those pioneers of the early reader books.
But they have endured despite their flaws, and old and new print runs are still happening today, out of London and Nottingham.
The book which so amused my daughter is called Danger Men, published in 1970. It attempts to reduce dangerous occupations to the level, and vocabulary, of a six-year-old learning to read.
The first page shows record holder Henri Rochelain suspended high above Monaco Harbour, perched precariously on a tightrope, making a record attempt.
This is a heart stopping moment for all concerned, as he teeters between life and death. No safety net there: for where would one anchor it, in that chic setting?
The writing does not contradict what is happening in this breathtaking picture: it simply understates it to the point of the ridiculous.
“Can you see the man?
He is in danger.
You can see that he is in danger.
The man is brave.
He is very brave.”
Yes, he is. And I can see that, because he has not opted to take a boat.
Instead he chooses for some insane reason to walk on a piece of string hundreds of feet above a densely populated harbour.
Ah, the power of the understatement.
This is demonstrated so well by Captain Eric Moody, of an infamous flight from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, who made a level announcement to passengers: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking.
“We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
The pilot and his team went without engines for 14 minutes, and were preparing to ditch in the ocean when they cleared volcanic ash which was causing the problem, and landed their 260 passengers and crew in Jakarta.
Irony and understatement run deep in the humour of this little island, and strings of authors speak the language fluently.
Take a lesser known creation of PG Wodehouse: the verbose and deeply ironic Psmith.
Even the name is an irony, a comic twist on the most common surname in England. When he travels to New York, accompanying a cricketing buddy, he is bored. He wishes for a little more action.
And lo, there is a character called Billy Windsor with a boot-faced gangster’s cat in a basket at the next table in the restaurant, who happens to be the editor of an understated little magazine for the faint-hearted called Cosy Moments.
Psmith has found the key to the underbelly of the big city :” I am not half sure, …that Comrade Windsor may not prove to be the genial spirit for whom I have been searching”, he tells his friend.
Events, and Psmith, conspire to bring together these most incongruous elements: a bored English gentleman and a notorious New York gang. A hard-news editorial policy and a cosseted soft readership.
The whole thing is billed as A Great Crisis In New York Journalism. Wodehouse is an ironic virtuoso.
So there’s positive irony, and there’s negative irony.
But to the comic writer, it is almost a second skin. We zip ourselves in, take up our pen, and begin to write like the wind.