Musings / Laughing Matters

It is rare to find a book which, when reread after 60 years, is as humorous as the first time around.

My recent convalescence has, on the one hand, left me ample time to read. On the other, I seem to lack the concentration to read anything serious so I tend to opt for light literature. In Graham Greene's terminology: entertainments rather than novels.

The recent death of John Mortimer sent me back to his wonderful Rumpole books, the comic tales featuring the tousled criminal barrister, Horace Rumpole. Rumpole is one of the great comic creations of the 20th century. A principal reason that his image is so fixed in the mind of the public is the memorable and endearing way this rumpled (the name was not chosen accidentally) lawyer was so memorably played on television by Leo McKern. His effrontery toward the Bench is as remarkable as is his contempt for the study of the law.

Among Rumpole's most endearing affectations is his habit, for no apparent reason, of copiously quoting chunks of English literature. The literary allusion that no reader or television viewer forgets is Rumpole's longstanding habit of referring to his wife Hilda as "She Who Must be Obeyed." Ayesha, heroine of H. Rider Haggard's fantasy novel "She," surely cannot have hoped for such posthumous glory.

It is in connection with my own She Who Must be Obeyed that I was restored to another piece of literature that, in its time, had given me much pleasure. My wife Sheila follows my medical condition with a zeal that is a wonder to behold. Though lacking formal medical training, she has kept by her bed, all our married life, a number of medical books, the constant reading of which has given her an enviable diagnostic ability. And she keeps up to date. Her medical curiosity, which to my mind is excessive, manifested itself during my recent bout of ill-health. No symptom can escape her eager eye.

She finds herself compelled to read every word of the literature that the pharmaceutical companies insist on cramming into each packet of medications gratis and unsolicited. I maintain that you do not have to read all that stuff if your doctor tells you to take the medicine. Not incidentally, I have yet to meet a doctor who has ever read any of this literature. I suspect that the leaflets, with their blood-curdling warnings, are drafted by lawyers. At any rate, Sheila, who happens to be a lawyer, reads it all avidly, concentrating on the small print.

There is one particular drug I had been taking that the doctors view as important. I had been taking it long enough for an assessment of its efficacy to be made, so we arranged a consultation with the specialists responsible for my health. Beneficial effects were measurable, and I am happy to confirm that I had some measurable positive results. Negative side effects were a more subjective matter. Sheila tried to make it easier for the doctors. When given her chance to make her contribution to the discussion, she let loose by reciting exhaustively and without exclusion the list of complaints she had learned in the pamphlet accompanying the remedy. Sadly, she was not able to finish reading the entire list because she was drowned out by the growing laughter of my doctors. What they were muttering through their laughter took a moment to comprehend. We usually speak in Hebrew, but these words were in English. Exhibiting a literary knowledge with which I had not always credited the medical profession, their words were "Three Men in a Boat."

That Victorian light classic describes a trip on the Thames by three men and a dog. The learned - albeit not, I hitherto thought, literary-minded - medical practitioners were thinking, of course, of the opening chapter of the book in which the narrator, reading one of those medical encyclopedias, finds he has the symptoms of every disease known to man including cholera, diphtheria and typhoid. For a reason for which he cannot account, he does not, however, suffer from Housemaids' Knee. Concerned at all the other symptoms, he rushes in alarm to his doctor with his new knowledge. His doctor gives him a thorough examination after which he writes a prescription which J., the narrator, takes unread to his chemist. The chemist gives it to J. to read. It starts: "1 lb. beefsteak" and concludes "and don't stuff up your head with things you don't understand." I suspect that many doctors would like to give this prescription to other amateur diagnosticians.

Still I had not realized that this quintessentially English book that I had loved as an adolescent, was so widely read outside the English-speaking world. On further investigation I discovered that, since its publication in 1889, the book has never been out of print and that last year Esquire magazine ranked it No. 2 of the 50 Funniest Books Ever. (In 1961 it was filmed in German as "Drei Mann in einem Boot." My German is less adequate than it should be; as far as I could make out, it is about a teetotaler who lived in a shoe.)

Monty Python funny

Out of curiosity, I decided to reread "Three Men in a Boat." It is, I suppose, about 60 years since I read it last, and I wondered whether anything had changed for me. My memories of the book are mixed. Of course, with that great capacity for laughter that only teenagers seem to possess, I had laughed inordinately then. But it is a book that, apart from its comic intentions, was meant as a serious guide for the River Thames, and it was those passages that provided the longueurs for youthful readers. I did not think that one's capacity for boredom changes over the years and I was right. What was tedious then remained tedious on second reading. Nothing would change that.

But I wondered whether other books I had read and laughed at in my youth would have the same effect on me at the age of 75 as they had at the age of 15. A book that made me and my contemporaries laugh immoderately was "1066 and All That" by Sellar & Yeatman, a child's mock history of England. We were, I suppose, just out of school ourselves in those days and the references were plain, but the laughter was unforced and unavoidable. A year or two ago I decided to reread "1066." Yes, you could still laugh at it. You could see what the laughter was about, but it was not, say, Monty Python funny. You did not get a pain in the side from the laughter it forced out of you.

But that hasn't happened to P.G. Wodehouse. I can still pick up almost any of the novels from his mature period - say, any book with the word "Jeeves" in the title - and laugh even though I have read the passage any number of times. To my mind he is the only classic humorous writer.