By PAUL JENNINGS
IT'S a very odd thing to be a humorous writer at any time, but it's oddest of all at Christmas, because this is when all humorous books come out.
I don't think the publishers think of them as 'books at all, but as bait. As the number of Saturdays before Christmas gets relentlessly smaller, there are more and more people whose dazed and confused minds revolve helplessly round one single idea, growing ever more irresistible as their strength fades. This idea, this concept, is that of bath salts. You have had an exhausting but on the whole successful day; you have got wonderfully appropriate presents for A, for B, for C, and your power of creative choice was still working when you got to the non-stick saucepan. just right for X; the wind-up toy (a bear in a chefs hat that tosses an egg, nodding furiously as it does so) that pleases you, never mind whether it pleases child Y who will receive it; and the well-chosen record for Z. But now this power is rapidly declining in you. It is five past five. The car is parked miles away, and you are very tired. Suddenly you remember this aunt, this friend at work, this neighbour. Bath salts, you think wearily.
These are all very fine in their way, and I mean no harm to the manufacturers. But there is no doubt that bath salts are an ultimate confession of failure, coming even below slippers and handkerchiefs. People know this in their hearts; and it is because publishers know that they know this that humorous books are used as bait, to get these exhausted people into bookshops. For the fact is that none of us go to bookshops as often as we should. Those who aren't interested in books fear the shutin look of bookshops, which in physical appearance often rather resemble shoe shops, with the same regular stacks of whitish, neatish, rectangular things on library-type shelves. They wouldn't think of going into a shoe shop and just browsing, and they have this instinctive feeling that the manager would stare at them if they tried this with books too.
Those who are interested in books. on the other hand. tend
to have one particular bookshop that they go to—usually one that just sells books, and not a lot of brass fire-irons, leather holders for the Radio Times, china geese. jig-saw puzzles, Plasticine, secateurs, string, raffia, bread-boards and do-it-yourself painting kits as well. In their supercilious way they overlook the fact that such shops have to sell these nonbooks in order to survive, and that hidden somewhere among all this plastic junk there still remain possibly several thousand books, many of them doubtless rubbish, but always offering the delightful possibility of some marvellous surprise, some discovery, some work that could :hange their lives. Faced with this situation—the tired crowds mumbling bath .s-alt.s., bath salts, to themselves, and the natural and instinctive fear of bookshops—the publishers and the booksellers have this plan to lure people in with humorous books. All the year round there is, near the entrance of every bookshop. a table with humorous books on it, but at Christmas this table burgeons and grows, into a monstrous mountain of jokes. Come on in. it seems to say, don't be afraid. Look. books are FUNI 1 don't think the publishers, or the booksellers, actually hope to sell any of the humorous books. They never advertise them, or so it seems to the authors (although I believe this is true of non-humorous authors as well). I have often stood in a bookshop at Christmas, watching the people come in, diffident, yet willing to try anything to get away from those perishing bath salts. I have seen them leaf through the mass products of the clowns, my own included, before putting them down with a small sigh. Cartoons, articles, verse, they stare at it all with deep puzzled frowns, as though they were working out some algebra. It is the same feeling I have as when I have to take a piece to our lawyer to see if there is any libel in it; I sit in a brown leather armchair, in this gloomy room full of brown leather books. the lawyer puts on very stern glasses and reads through my fragile little piece without a muscle of his face moving. All writers, whether they admit it or not, are like Arnold Bennett. who is said to have haunted bookshops with a cheque for £100 in his pocket that he was going to give to the first person he saw buying one of his books; he never did. The nearest I have ever got to seeing a spontaneous reaction from anyone was one Sunday years ago when my wife and I were having a drink at a pub with tables outside. and the man at the table next to us was actually reading my piece in The Observer. I had my back to him, so I couldn't turn round to look, and my wife relayed his reactions. "His mouth just twitched," she said. "He's gone serious again. He's put the paper down" (des pai r ! ). "No, wait, he's only getting matches out of his pocket. He's picked it up again. He's smiling." Gosh, it was wonderful. It's only happened once since 1949. No, of course all that publishers and booksellers want to do with our books is actually to get the people into the shops, once they're there they can get them with the real stuff, with the endless, endless talk about sex, betrayal, neurosis, doom, murder, despair; with writing.
I once saw a great illustrated feature in Life, or some such magazine, called The Creative Agony of Arthur Miller; there were lots of photographs of A. Miller, his face contorted, his fists screwed against his temples, his brow furrowed, as he struggled with his next novel or play or whatever it was. It was like Beethoven howling and stamping behind locked doors as he wrestled with the fugue of the Credo in the Missa Solemnis, only more so. You've only got to try and imagine a piece called The Creative Agony of Paul Jennings to see what a marginal position is occupied by us jokers. Even if it is hard to write the stuff (and after all, as Chesterton observed. "it is easy to be heavy. hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity") nobody wants to know this. And quite right too. Any good funny piece ought to look as if the chap who wrote it was out in the fields digging beetroot, or building a dynamo, or doing some real, man's job, when he got this idea and. howling with laughter, rushed upstairs and jotted it all down in five minutes and then went back to his real job Or is there, after all. a deeper iustification for laughter, that wonderful, human thing, in the bookshops at this time? Maybe it has as much to do with Christmas as bath salts, anyway.