Category Archives: Humour

Alas, poor Fred

FRED, by Posy Simmonds, published 1987

Bookcase 5, shelf 3, book 7

This book is a legend. I love it. I can even recite parts of it, but that’s not surprising: it’s not the longest work in the literary canon. It’s magnificent.

Ahem.

Yet again the dice have given me a children’s book. They keep landing on bookcase 4, shelf 3, and that’s where I have some kids’ books. But they’re not all children’s titles; it’s also where I have my bandes dessinées and Fred resides with those, next to Posy Simmonds’ other books such as Tamara DreweGemma Bovery and the collections of strips she did for the Guardian.

So what – or who, rather – is Fred? Well, if you don’t already know, Fred is a cat. But he’s not just any cat, as becomes evident after his death.

Sophie and Nick, the children to whom Fred ‘belongs’, are very sad about the death of their beloved pet.

He didn’t do much (he liked sleeping, as you may have gathered), but they loved him deeply, and most of the people they tell think of him fondly too: ‘He used to sleep on my dustbin’, ‘We’ll miss him, he used to sleep on our wall…’

But then night comes, and Sophie is awakened by a strange noise outside. Not surprisingly, she is so astonished by what she sees that she wakes her brother and drags him into the garden. Well, it’s not every day you see a cat in a top hat, and one that looks normal – in as much as that is possible. It’s Mrs Spedding’s Ginger, in fact, dressed like a Victorian undertaker.

Sophie approaches. ‘Puss… puss… ‘ and is immediately rebuffed: ‘I BEG YOUR PARDON!’ This is not a world in which you talk down to cats, because they talk back.

Especially this night.

It is, you see, Fred’s funeral. That’s his proper funeral, not the one the family had earlier, the one where they buried him underneath the buddleia and Sophie made a little paper gravestone with ‘Fred’ written on it. That was hopelessly inadequate. Because Fred, it transpires, was a rock star.

Posy Simmonds once described him as the ‘Roy Orbison of the car world’. (His band, incidentally, are The Heavy Saucers.)

A large crowd of mourners, including two dogs and three mice as well as the two humans, gather for the ceremony. Most carry flowers, some clutch laurel wreathes, a sniffling kitten holds an album sleeve. Everyone joins in the funeral song (‘Meeeow! Meooooo! O Caterwauley wailey-woe!) and, one by one, they lie flowers on the grave. Sophie and Nick don’t have anything, so they contribute – Sophie makes Nick contribute, that is – Nick’s ‘special wabbit’, his soft toy.

And then they all go off to the funeral tea in the dustbins, it being the eve of rubbish day, taking a short cut through the children’s house. The celebrations are beautifully drawn, as is everything, with meticulous attention to detail – the teddy-boy cats in brothel creepers, a couple of mice in leather jackets (while I’m on details, the endpapers are worth looking at, too). All drawn, of course, with Posy Simmonds’ wit and touch, which avoids the twee, the sentimental and the cloying. Completely.

The noise of the wake brings an inevitable end to the ceremony as it wakes up the street (‘Oh, those blessed cats!’, ‘What an unholy din!’, Here, I’ve got a saucepan of water…’). The cats disappear and the children trail back to bed.

And in the morning? It’s all very odd. There’s a trail of muddy paw prints through the house. The daisies have all been picked. Nick’s rabbit is in the garden – and Sophie’s improvised grave marker has been replaced.

(The observant will notice, looking back at the scene, a ginger cat walking away along the wall. Mrs Spedding’s Ginger, no doubt.)

P-P-P-Patrick Campbell

THE P-P-PENGUIN by Patrick Campbell, published as a collection in 1965; original journalism published between 1954 and 1965

Bookshelf 4, shelf 2, book 12

I used to search out Paddy Campbell’s books in second-hand bookshops, but this is one I inherited – which may explain its rather battered condition. I’ve since found another copy, but heaven only knows where it is…

For my money Patrick Campbell was one of the funniest writers in the English language, and one of the few people who could make me laugh so much that I’d become helpless. If I was unwise enough to be drinking tea at the time, it would come down my nose.

But I was intrigued when the dice gave me this. Some of the pieces in it are well over 50 years old.

Would I still find them funny?

Some people may remember Campbell as one of the team captains on the old TV show Call My Bluff – the tall, thin Irish one with the stammer. For me, growing up, he was the only reason why my parents tolerated the Sunday Times. 

It took me a while to find him as funny as they did, which isn’t surprising; he didn’t write for ten year olds. We weren’t alone in our admiration: one reviewer of the time described him as ‘the funniest displaced Dublin journalist at large in London so far.’

Campbell, born in 1913 to an eminent Irish lawyer and his wife (and into a noted legal family) showed no inclination whatsoever to follow in the family footsteps – probably just as well, given that their tendency to become involved in politics got them held up at least once by the IRA. Instead he ended up on the Irish Times under the eccentric editorship of Robert Smyllie:

‘I stumbled on the only job that required no degrees, no diplomas, no training and no specialised knowledge of any kind … journalism might have been designed for my special benefit.’

(Smyllie, incidentally, also recruited Flann O’Brien to the paper.) Campbell was at there for many years both before and after the War, which he spent in the Irish Marine Service. He then migrated to London, and wrote for other papers including the Sunday Times. As time wore on, he began to appear on television, where his characteristic stoop and even more characteristic stammer made him instantly recognisable. In 1968 – by then he’d inherited his father’s title and was officially the 3rd Baron Glenavy – he moved to a farmhouse near Grasse, which is where he died in November 1980.

The P-P-Penguin is one of many collections of his columns; apart from 35 Years on the Job, this is the one which covers the widest range in time. It is divided into broadly themed sections – the Quentin Blake illustrations are from the start of two of these – and within each section are between five and ten pieces. One of the longest sections – The Aesthete – deals with his cultural confusions, best summed up in the title of one: ‘Brünnhilde is Wotan’s Uncle’, in which he attempts to unravel Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Quoting Paddy Campbell is invidious, really. He wasn’t a man of one-liners, though his descriptions can be succinct – once he had to act as a sub for a sports reporter who had a win on the horses, passed out and been taken home ‘…the victim in equal parts of surprise, and nineteen bottles of stout.’ Instead each piece builds incident on incident and witty turn of phrase on witty turn of phrase until, in the best of them, you are almost hysterical.

For instance, there’s his alternative Christmas game, a substitute for endless, desperate, grim charades. This is ‘Mother, I’m back!’,  invented in extremis – ‘…if we want to act – and who doesn’t at two o-clock in the morning…’ – in which participants have to enter the room and greet their long-lost mother in suitably melodramatic style. Fine until the person playing Mother gets fed up… And what about his attempts to join the breadmaking revolution, or master military commands in alleged Irish? Excellent.

And my overall conclusion? Well, I still laughed wildly at some pieces, but others – no, not so much; they’re just a bit too dated, well-written or not. A newspaper column is an ephemeral thing – tomorrow’s chip wrapper – and some of these are straining a little. I think that 35 Years on the Job is a much better, more representative and balanced selection of his journalism – which is not surprising. After all, Campbell continued writing well after The P-P-Penguin was published, producing some of his funniest and most moving pieces then. If you can find that book, lurking in a second-hand bookshop or chez Abebooks, get it. Otherwise – well, yes, there are some good things here. But it’s not as consistent.