Whenever a critic claims such-and-such by so-and-so is the funniest book ever it is inclined to irritate. The simple, obvious truth is that different things appeal to different people. Different things make us laugh. One episode in a book that is guaranteed to raise more than a smile here is a passage in John Murray’s novel John Dory which involves a lady called Mildred (the narrator’s mum), some home-distilled sloe gin, a compost heap, and some hens which get paralytic, plucked, and come back from the dead wearing little knitted baby jackets. It is tempting to repeat the whole thing here, but that would spoil some fun if it is not familiar to you.
And there is scientific proof that the farcical episode is incredibly comical. There is a lady called Rosemary, the secretary to a rail pressure group whose chairman was from Maryport, the Cumbrian town in which John Dory is set. This chap, an elderly local politician who was immensely likeable, tended to describe himself as a Husband, a Socialist and a Methodist, in that order.
He could easily have been in John Dory. He always seemed to be wearing a blue blazer, with a little fish badge in his lapel, just like Ken Wright in the book, the visiting preacher at the Methodist mission hall at the far end of the North Quay. Ken has quite a vivid past, and a way with words even though he looked “monumentally anonymous” at the time of the book. But that is another story.
Rosemary always seemed fiercely protective of her chairman, and she was genuinely passionate about railways and public transport. It seemed natural to tell her about John Murray’s book John Dory being set in Maryport, with the aquarium and so on, and while on a lunch break at a meeting she listened to an account of the ludicrous episode with the hens. She could come across as a little stern and severe, so it was a total joy to hear her howl with laughter at the story, so much so that everyone else in the room stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at us, and several sidled up later to ask “What on earth were you doing to Rosemary?” So, there you are, proof of sorts that it is the funniest passage in English literature.
On another day the same claim could be made for the episode in John Murray’s Murphy’s Favourite Channels where, early on in the book, the narrator Roe is on a train up to London on the day of the total eclipse in August 1999. The account of a four-hour train journey on the West Coast from Carlisle up to London tells how Roe gets revenge on a software sales executive who is a menace with his mobile and ruins any chance of Roe sitting peacefully reading a Kate O’Brien novel: “By Preston I was bilious, by Wigan incensed, by Warrington incandescent, by Crewe half-insane, by Stafford ...” Well, intervention was called for, which is what Roe does, telling his own tall tale and completely bamboozling the menace with the mobile in a magnificent manner.
Another great episode in John Murray’s comic repertoire comes in A Gentleman’s Relish involving Joe Clifton, a friend of the narrator George Geraghty. Joe is a painter from the Aran islands. He is a great admirer of the novelist and revolutionary Liam O’Flaherty, especially his book Black Soul, which is a very John Murray-like detail. Joe exacts some maliciously gleeful revenge when he is overlooked for a Festival of Britain commission.
The wreaking of this revenge takes place at a party hosted by the distinguished critic Esmond Jell, and an invitation to his home was supposedly a wonderful thing: “Clifton had celebrated his acceptance by the metropolitan art world by deciding to make himself completely unacceptable. This headstrong instinct would soon accelerate his ultimate eclipse and eventually lead him to a terminal obscurity”
Joe attends the soiree with his eccentric Aunt Biddy, and he does give something of a warning to his friend George of what’s in store by saying: “Here’s to not kow-towing. Here’s to letting them know that subversive talents have a frightening penchant for genuine sedition.”
George, the narrator, provides an eyewitness account of what could be said to be the smashing time Joe has to the accompanying strains of Walter Leadbetter and his Jumping Thumpers performing ‘Wibbidy Wab’ with considerable gusto, all of which sounds so convincing that it is something of a shock not to find the song on YouTube in one form or another. In fact the only ‘Wibbidy Wabbidy’ that seems to come up is a brand new track by a rapper, activist and poet from Phoenix called Myrlin which is something special in its own way, and serious stuff too.