RogerBW's Blog

Gladly Oddly, Paul Jennings 23 August 2014

Sixth (though the order doesn't really matter) of the collections of Paul Jennings' short humorous pieces, mostly from The Observer, published in 1958.

Jennings isn't well-known these days; he's been mined extensively by later comic writers, possibly on the basis that he's out of print and therefore fair game. This is the original, and it's heady stuff; this is a book to be read two or three pieces at a time, at most, not devoured at a sitting.

The typical or canonical Jennings article, if there can be such a thing, is a whimsical pondering. He would see an advertisement for Gardner's Witchcraft Today, or a dustcart with a GB plate on the back, and spin this into a few hundred words placing traditional fairy-story witch activities in modern suburbia, or contemplating a council sending its dustmen on foreign holidays. As he put it in Wool-Gathering:

Listen, psychologists, there are only two kinds of men: the ones to whom these things mean no more than the croaking of frogs or the silence of rocks – dead, cold, inscrutable, nothing-to-do-with-me; and the ones who see a marvellous St Elmo's Fire round them all, a sort of deep, luminous ether of human reality, much more real than the mere cold economic or other facts which they presumably connote. To this latter class the very first thought aroused by JAM IN TUNNEL is, well, Jam, in a tunnel; about a foot deep, oozing from the walls; blackwall jam, in Blackberry Tunnel.

Jennings was, quintessentially, the second sort of man.

Sometimes he would go on a more explicit flight of fancy, for example in Wild Western Wales where, annoyed with the need for British performers to pretend to be American in order to succeed, he transposed the generic Western plot into a different West: "The first scene shows the little town of Cwmtwm, packed with rough-riding sheep-boys who have come in for the annual eisteddfod and rodeo." Sometimes he would resort to poetry, when for example inspired by the instructions for an oil-stove, frustrated by his inability to keep the novels of Jane Austen separated in his mind, or infuriated by the omnipresence of Davy Crockett (in the wake of the Disney TV series and spin-off records).

Also here are Ware, Wye, Watford and Gloddish Enough (Douglas Adams did eventually apologise to Jennings for not crediting him in The Meaning of Liff); the tribulations of the do-it-yourselfer; philosophical musings on giving up smoking… it's all splendid stuff, from Jennings at his prime, in a style that is no longer written by anyone.

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