Don't Shoot, I'm Not Well!
Gill and MacMillan, 1974
I work in a library that houses over a million books. And these books, of course, are only a fraction of the all the books that were ever written. I read recently that it would take fifty thousand years to read all the books that were ever printed. Longer for me, because I'm a slow reader (though I might speed up after the first thousand years or so, through dint of practice).
Of course, some books are 'classics' and the expectation is that everybody who wants to embrace our cultural heritage should read these. Virgil, Plutarch, Thomas Malory, Miguel de Cervantes, The Arabian Nights, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner....I've left all of these classics unread, and I don't feel any pressing desire to rectify that. (When I was fifteen, this indifference would have appalled me.)
On the other hand, I find myself (as do you, gentle reader, I'm sure) re-reading books which have no great claim to literary eminence but which happen to please some particular appetite of my own. One of these is Don't Shoot, I'm Not Well! by Ted Bonner, a slim book of humorous essays by the Irish journalist and broadcaster, Ted Bonner, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 85. (Rather curiously, one of my colleagues-- to whom I happened to mention the book-- became the owner of Bonner's laptop after his death. Ted Bonner is far from being a household name in Ireland-- he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, that infallible barometer of fame-- so I was mildly surprised my colleague knew who he was, never mind that he owned his laptop).
This is the kind of book I find myself reaching for when I'm in the mood for comfort reading-- when I'm feeling tired, or fed-up, or listless, or mentally unadventurous.
Some months ago, I wrote a whole essay about the book's dedication, which I find extraordinarily moving: "For anyone, anywhere, with whom I have ever shared a laugh".
I won't pretend Mr. Bonner is a particularly gifted writer (though anyone who can write something that anyone else wants to read is doing something right). The essays in this volume are not outrageously funny. They are, to be frank, examples of a particularly laboured sort of humour that other people find unbearable but that I find strangely appealing.
Why shouldn't humour be laboured, anyway? I understand that there is a certain finesse involved in achieving an effect without appearing to strain after it, but surely this only one way in which humour can appeal. Isn't there a certain pleasure to be found in humour that makes a meal of things, that actually relishes a punch-line instead of trying to smuggle it in inconspiciously? Ted Bonner was, as the dust jacket of this book tells us, an accomplished after-dinner speaker, and Don't Shoot I'm Not Well has a very 'after-dinner speaker' air to it, one that I find appealing. You can almost smell the cigars and cognac.
There aren't very many 'laugh out loud' passages, if there are any at all. But I don't think humour has to make us laugh to justify its existence, or to warrant the name 'humour'. Humour is an atmosphere, like horror or tragedy.
I only have to list some of the subjects of these essays to show you what kind of a book this is. 'Four Closed Minds in an Open Car' concerns a holiday taken with three friends in France, in the course of which the holiday party meet a whole series of mishaps, most notably a broken lift; 'Encore-- with Feeling' is about the ridiculous questions that TV news reporters ask those who are caught up in human interest stories, and features the author's fantasy of how he would treat a news team who called to his house; 'The Communications Gap' is an epistolary essay, comprising a series of letters between the author, a car company, and the various departments within the car company, in which the author becomes more and more frustrated in his efforts to get his car repaired. (Bonner was a motoring correspondent.) "Come Fill the Cup" is an essay about an upcoming World Cup Finals, and a tongue-in-cheek explanation of the rules of the game for the benefit of the ladies ("it is a brave woman who will interrupt this concentration other than to bring her man the proteins he needs to keep his viewing strength up, and even then she'd better not pass between him and the screen"...)
You get the point. Not exactly alternative comedy, and that's a lot of the reason I like it. There is something very soothing in such familiar conventions. My liking for such things probably has something to do with my mother forbidding me from sucking my thumb when I was four. (An event I don't remember; I deduce that it must have occurred, though.)
One of the pleasures of this sort of gentle comedy, and gentle writing, is what it doesn't involve. It doesn't involve explicit sex jokes, or brutality, or anything gross. I admit that's a negative way to look at it, but does negative always equal bad? Such gentle comedy is also unlikely to deal with tragedy, or death, or heinous evil. There is a sense of relief in that, too.
The prose style is rather laboured; this kind of comic writer
usually achieves his effect (such as he achieves it) by putting
everything in an arch, eyebrow-wagging way. Here is a passage from
'Life in a Perfumed Mist', an essay about the new trend of male
Consider-- if you think I paint too sombre a
picture-- the case of the young, up-and-coming executive who is so with
it he's almost past it. He springs from bed at the first clang of the
alarm, dead keen to meet the challenge of the new day. After a few
vigorous exercises to get the circulation up to cruising and the muscles
pliant and rippling beneath the silky skin, he leaps into a bath.
Carefully, he lathers himself all over with a soap that not only
perfumes but purifies and cleanses for at least twenty-four hours and
sheathes his skin in an antiseptic barrier against which virus and germ
will beat in vain.
That kind of thing.
Some of the essays are a little bit different in tone. "Mexico, Someone Says" is a five-page vignette of the author's experiences of that country. (Bonner was a business executive, as well as a journalist and broadcaster, so many of the essays are about international travel.) It's quite lyrical, and has a few rather poignant passages, including an encounter with a mestizo (a Spanish-Indian) and a visit to a squalid adobe suburb teeming with life. I like the opening paragraph very much:
I never cease to be amazed by the speed and facility with which one's memory can select and project mental pictures; even more amazing is how undiscriminating this process often is-- the computer in the brain makes it own choice and frequently remembers trivia, and persists in remembering trivia, to the exclusion of more important happenings. Which inevitably makes one wonder just where the memories of these more serious matters have gone. Have they been erased completely or do they lie buried deep in the mind awaiting the correct trigger pulse-- a word, a smell, music or whatever-- to bring them to the surface?
In fact, come to think of it, this is what is at the heart of the book's appeal to me-- this whole matter of anecdotes. An anecdote is a poetic thing, a mystical thing. At least, to me it is. Time, space and experience are mysteries. Often, when I hear someone telling an anecdote-- I mean, an anecdote of an event they have experienced themselves-- the realization that this happened in a different time and a different place strikes me as odd and wonderful. The only thing that we can really vouch for are our immediate surroundings, the present moment, the person in front of us. Everything else, in my view, is unutterably exotic and dream-like-- or so it is when I think about it, or when the thought strikes me out of the blue. The fact that every person you meet carries around with them an invisible galaxy of memories and experience is also something I can never quite get over.
Very well, you might say-- but doesn't this apply to every non-fiction book ever written?
I suppose it does, but it's the combination of the exotic and dream-like and the familiar and reassuring that pleases me. My problem with most books is that they are too exotic. This includes pretty much all contemporary fiction. I don't know anyone who behaves (or talks, or thinks) like the people I encounter in contemporary fiction; it misses the element of mimesis, of the simple pleasure in a make-believe reproduction of reality, the pleasure that a toddler indulges whenever he draws a swirl that is supposed to be a cloud. The preoccupations of contemporary novelists, short story writers and poets-- and of their characters, too-- seem further away from the life I know than the worlds of Trollope or Yeats or Chesterton.
Bearing all that in mind, a collection of anecdotes that uses such familiar tropes as 'World Cup widows', rainy fishing trips and needlessly bureaucratic hotel staff has a special appeal to it.
The fact that it comes from a particular period in Irish history-- just before I was born-- is also part of the charm. I've written before (far too often, no doubt) about my strange nostalgia for the Ireland of the nineteen seventies and nineteen eighties. (This book was published three years before my birth, but it's still more or less the same ambience.) As I've said before, Ireland was more or less monocultural at this time. It was still Catholic-- in a laid-back kind of way. Catholicism was simply the backdrop of existence. Ireland was still an agricultural country, too, whereas today (I've just checked) its primary industry is the 'knowledge economy'.
So the nation felt like a big family in the way that it doesn't now. Whatever the benefits of multiculturalism, secularism and the development of a modern economy, they do tend to weaken the sentimental bonds of nationhood.
(But why, you may ask, would I be nostalgic for such a comparatively recent time, if that's what I'm hankering after? Ireland in the 1870s would be much more Catholic, agricultural and monocultural than Ireland in the 1970s. But, once again, the element of familiarity is crucial. I can't imaginatively step back into the 1870s, or the 1880s. It's just too different. And, of course, the element of personal experience is also relevant.)
There aren't many actual mentions of religion in Don't Shoot, I'm Not Well! I thought Ted Bonner had mentioned attending Mass in one passage, but searching through the book as I wrote this blog post, I could find no such mention. So the only reference I'm sure of is the punch-line to one essay, where a gymnastically-inclined beau of the author's sister, after unintentionally wreaking havoc in the family home, blithely and heedlessly asks the author's father whether it is a picture of the Virgin Mary or the Little Flower hanging on the wall. But even such obliqueness is appealing. Having a picture of the Virgin Mary or the Little Flower on the wall, in the Ireland of this time, is so ordinary it needs no explanation, and even a 'jock' would know it was one or the other.
One of things I like about the kind of 'family nationalism' I'm talking about here is that, when an author is writing for his countrymen (and women), he can assume a great deal of shared knowledge and shared experience. For instance, there is one fairly amusing essay called "The Night They Moved the George Washington Bridge" in which Bonner describes his efforts, with an Irish friend, to locate the George Washington Bridge in New York. They are trying to get to Atlantic City and at one point the author recalls wondering if it even existed, writing: "Could it be that there is no such place as Atlantic City and that I am being treated, by the natives from whom I sought instructions, as might a tourist in Ireland enquiring where he caught the ferry for Hy-Brasil, the Isle of the Blessed?" (Hy-Brasil is a legendary island in Irish folklore.)
(Incidentally, there is at least one genuinely funny passage in this particular essay, in which Bonner is told that he 'can't miss' a particular car they are looking for in a car park. He replies: "When anyone says 'you can't miss it', an opaque shutter seems to fall in front of my eyes. It is therefore pointless for me to search and I suggest that you go and find it while I sit here quietly building up my strength for the voyage." So true! "It's right there in front of you" has the same effect on me.)
Of course, writers (especially in magazines and newspapers) still write for a national audience, and a regional audience, and assume a certain amount of shared knowledge and shared experience as they do so. But....I don't know. In Ireland, at least, this so often seems to be done either ironically or apologetically-- sneering references to Catholic guilt or Ballygobackwards or our various inhibitions, from a reluctance to advertise our sex lives to being insufficiently pushy about our career advancement. (At one CV-building workshop I reluctantly attended, the presenter recommended phoning up would-be employers who had rejected you at interview, and asking how you'd performed and what you could do better. "It's terribly un-Irish, I know", she said. Yes it is.)
I'm overstating the case, of course. Nations will survive, national cultures will survive, the experience of a shared history and shared TV and radio and shared political system, and so on, will continue into the distant future. As we are constantly reminded, there has been demographic and cultural change throughout history, but new forms of national consciousness emerge from the flux. America is possibly the most multicultural, socially diverse, and religiously divided nation in the world, and what national culture is more vibrant? All the same I can't help feeling a pang for the Ireland of only a few decades ago, when one could look out, cosily and wonderingly, at the great world beyond our shores, all the time taking for granted a rather backward and parochial and pious place we called home.