Will the gentleman who threw an onion at the Union Jack, and repeatedly and noisily tore cloth during the singing of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, at the Orphans’ Outing on Thursday, write to Colonel Sir George Jarvis Delamain Spooner, late of Poona, telling him what right he has to the Old Carthusian braces which burst when he was arrested?
1) We’ll be doing this in numbered points. No particularly good reason. And we’re not starting exactly where this left off. Also, I won’t try to be funny. That’s a stupid thing to do when dealing with an actually funny writer. However, the first point I’d like to make is rather trite, and it is that The Best of Beachcomber has the ugliest cover of any book I own:
2) Beachcomber – and I’m talking about the J B Morton incarnation here, not the earlier D B Wyndham Lewis (!=Percy) version, or the 90s revival, neither of whom I’ve read – suffers from his admirers. I didn’t read him for a long time, since I’d only heard him bigged up by two classes of people: those who go on about The Goon Show, and professional humourists. You could almost hear his fans chuckling to themselves as they wrote about his marvellous characters, like ‘Dr Strabismus (Whom God Preserve) of Utrecht’. You can probably see how the punchable wryness slips in as soon as those brackets open. How could I not despise Beachcomber?
3) The previous statement is kind of false. I haven’t heard his name in ages. He doesn’t really have vocal proponents any more and is completely out of print as far as I can see. I assume that if you were sitting next to Miles Kington at dinner, he would talk your ear off about the brilliance of Beachcomber; however, I don’t think the claims for B’s genius have been made so much in public in the last ten years. Shame. Still, it would have been Miles Kington making the claims, so I most likely wouldn’t have listened.
4) Point 3) makes me think that people no longer know how much O’Brien, in his Na Gopaleen form, takes from Beachcomber. ‘Research Bureau’ = Dr Strabismus, The Cruiskeen Court of Voluntary Jurisdiction = Justice Cocklecarrot, and the Plain People of Ireland = Prodnose. Swathes of the Cruiskeen Lawn are pretty much a Dubliner version of Beachcomber. A lot of is better; much of it isn’t. They share a lot of tricks and tics – complete control over conventional journalistic and belletrist idiom for parodic purposes, abrupt tone changes, breaking the frame, the sense of a fast mind entertaining itself – and Beachcomber’s neglected in comparison.
By the way, this isn’t doing down O’Brien: there’s few I love more, and though I haven’t read any of Morton’s 29 non-Beachcomber books, I don’t imagine any of them can lay a finger on The Third Policeman. I just want to point out that the brilliance of Cruiskeen Lawn isn’t ex nihilo or sui generis and that the generis from which it in fact exes is hella good on its own terms.
5) You can back and forth when comparing: the puns are better in Myles; but I prefer Beachcomber’s playlets; Beachcomber has a stronger sense of narrative; but there’s nothing like Na Gopaleen’s insane gaelic lexicon fun; Myles gets the bores; Beachcomber nails the oddness of manners.
6) My gift to desperate post-colonial academics: two solid-gold propositions that you can spin out to an article.
a) Cruiskeen Lawn is an appropriation and subversion of the idiom of the Humourous English Newspaper Column, as embodied by Beachcomber. What appear to be borrowings are in fact strategic rewritings.
b) Beachcomber’s creation ‘Big White Carstairs’ is one of the great satires of late imperial Britain.
Only one of these is true, and it’s the second one.
7) Which is part of the point about Beachcomber. He’s one of the best and most fun writers of mid-century Britain. He does ha-ha-smart-serious more than I’d have thought from reading the people who keep repeating the funny names: taking apart and stretching and squeezing empty rituals and good manners and weird social codes and journalese and middling art, and making something startling. It’s sort of impenetrable sometimes, and tricky to get past the stupid names and passing jokes about stuff only dead people have heard of, but worth it.
I’ll try to post some over the next while, but it’ll make my stuff look a little pale. We’ll see.