Nothing is less amusing than a humourless sod trying to be funny. Norman McGreevy is a humourless sod who has put together a divine collection of howlers (Mr McGreevy’s Absolute Howlers), but then he got a rush of blood to the head and decided that it would be a good idea to write a light-hearted introduction to kick it off.
A ‘howler’, by the way, is an unintentional mistake in writing or speech (usually made by a child) which turns out to be hilarious. Collecting them is, for a teacher, a lifetime’s work – they are exceedingly rare. In five years of private English tutoring I’ve come across only one. A student presented to me a draft of an essay on refugee camps. Searching for ever greater depths of pathos, he described ‘depraved men and women queuing for water’. He meant ‘deprived’, of course, but the image of a long line of people waiting to refresh themselves after an epic orgy is rather sweet, don’t you think?
In the face of such a treat, pedantry is unforgivable: but pedantry is all McGreevy has to offer. His introduction is a clarion call for grammatical and factual exactitude in the face of a world indifferent to it. What he fails to realise is that his ideal universe would be bereft of howlers – and poorer for it. ‘If you have picked up this book,’ he begins,
‘then I trust we are kindred spirits, bound together by our collective outrage at the ways in which the youth of today are mangling the English language; chewing up words and spitting them out until, like a cashmere cardigan after it’s been through the spin cycle, their beauty and power are diminished.’
The phrase ‘youth of today’ should sound some warning bells, but since we’re talking ‘mangling the English language’ here, I would have thought that the simile ‘like a cashmere cardigan after it’s been through the spin cycle’ could use some work. The cardigan is being compared to ‘words’, not ‘a word’ – so cardigan in the singular doesn’t quite match up. Quite clearly ‘cardigans’ would be much better. And what kind of ‘power’, exactly, does a cardigan have to lose? Go up to the blackboard, Mr McGreevy, and write out ‘I must not be a pedant until I’m perfect’ 10,000 times.
Warming to his theme, McGreevy steams on:
‘I for one am proud to be a curmudgeon. I never vote for anyone. I vote against. I believe we have to save the earth from evangelical environmentalists and dubious politicians who like bananas start off green, turn yellow and then become rotten. Nothing on TV, except documentaries about the eating habits of the common earwig, even remotely interests me, health food makes me sick, my favourite animal is bacon the sight of any actor spouting serious opinions, on any topic, I find so completely laughable I have to go and lie down.’
Yeah, yeah, yeah… so humour is exclusively derived from exaggeration and saying the outrageous, is it? And just to show that McGreevy’s pedantry is highly contagious, there are many highly articulate and intelligent actors, whose opinions on a wide range of topics are well worth having. Richard E Grant’s With Nails is a fabulous book brilliantly written, for starters, and if you’re curious about just how intelligent actors can sound when a really good interviewer is asking them questions, have a poke around here.
I think my major problem with McGreevy’s attitude, though, is that howlers have the undoubted potential to brilliant in and of themselves: some of the examples in his book would be the envy of many a writer. But McGreevy sees in them only the imminent collapse of civilisation.
Can you come up with a better definition of poetry than this, for example?
‘Poetry is when every line starts with a capital letter and doesn’t reach the right side of the page.’
Ambrose Bierce would have loved to have thought of these definitions for fairy tales and nets:
‘A fairy tale is something than never happened a long time ago.’
‘Nets are holes surrounded by pieces of string.’
The following two smack of P G Wodehouse to me:
‘People were running all over the place, the boys in shorts and the girls in hysterics.’
‘If he is not checked at the right age he will gradually develop into a vandal, and it will not be long before he is a magistrate.’
And while the poor anonymous mite who wrote this was out by a hundred years, it’s hard to fault the thought – sometimes a malapropism can point to a rather lovely truth:
‘In the middle of the 18th century, all the morons moved to Utah.’
I can’t recommend Mr McGreevy’s Absolute Howlers enough (ISBN 978 174114 858 9). But if you buy it, do tear out the introduction, won’t you?