I have always “done” funny. Both as a reader, and a writer. As a child, I snorted through every page of every Dr Seuss, laughed until I cried at Russell Hoban’s inspired creation Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong in her iron hat cooking mutton sog, and the mere mention of the East Pagwell Canal from Professor Branestawm was enough to render me insensible.
Laughter is a tonic, it’s therapy. Quite literally, as there is no greater closure than the writer’s revenge of turning the adults who belittled you, or the children who taunted you mercilessly for having hair like Leo Sayer and second-hand skirts, into grim-faced moustachioed ladies, or moronic underachievers called Kylie (yes, both of them, and no I won’t name the inspirational bullies behind the characters, but suffice to say I didn’t bother to change one of the surnames).
A few months ago, I was asked by The Guardian to write a piece on my top ten favourite “funny” books for young children. Of course I said yes. a) Because my self-esteem is sufficiently low and my ego sufficiently enormous that I am easily flattered. b) Because I like going through my bookshelves and ensuring they are still in excellent alphabetical order. And c) because I like thinking about funny things.
And so I did, think about them I mean, not just the books themselves (though that was a delight), but about the concept of “funny” and its place in fiction. Because I’ve found that funny is, oddly, frowned upon by certain people, and certain schools of thinking. These are the people who would have you believe that “issues” books – books that make you “feel”, that make you “think” (usually about grim things) are somehow more worthy of your time, and of praise, and prizes, than ones with jokes in.
People like my old O Level teacher who told me I’d never amount to anything when he caught me reading one of my own books under the desk, instead of the syllabus text sat sullenly on top of it. It wasn’t so much the act of disobedience that riled him, I think, than the subject matter – my chosen book was George’s Marvelous Medicine – so much more interesting than the turgid (or so it seemed to me at the time) Silas Marner.
But what these people – and there are many, from teachers to parents to peers – fail to get is that funny books can be just as worthwhile, and just as potentially life-changing. They make you “think”, they make you “feel”. But they make you laugh while you’re doing it. And sometimes, that can make the drama all the greater, the truth all the starker.
Funny books are important – from getting reluctant readers engaged in a story, to keeping the attention of those with short attention spans, to simply making us feel clever when we get the joke. Shakespeare did it; Austen did it; Dahl did it, not just in his children’s books, but throughout his tales for grown-ups too.
I’m not claiming to be in their ball park, I’m not even claiming that the Meaning of Life is life-changing, but I am convinced that, for at least two hundred and something pages, it will make life fun. And that makes life good. And that, surely, is what it’s all about.
(And if you’re interested in just what my top ten funny books for 5-8s were, you can read about them here)
The Meaning of Life is out today, and you can get it from the Guardian bookshop.