Diversion on Brexit, disclaimers, holiday reading, etc 

Kudos to whoever wrote this headline, in the Times Literary Supplement.

It also contains the most subtly double-edged disclaimers I’ve ever read, by reviewer James O’Brien about one of the authors under review: 

‘To declare an interest, we once shared desk space on the Daily Express, but he gave little indication then of possessing the powers of diplomacy and affability necessary to enjoy the trust of all the furiously warring factions within both sides of two even more furiously warring armies.’

So gloriously different: Do Not Adjust Your Set

Scene: A field. An unmistakable historic figure from 200 years ago stands, alone and glowering, in his French uniform, his arm tucked in characteristic pose. 

A stentorian voiceover demands, rhetorically: ‘Why did Napoleon keep his hand inside his waistcoat?’

Napoleon pulls his hand out. His trousers fall down. 

This was one of the earliest things I can remember laughing like a drain at for several hours afterwards.  It is stuck in my mind for that reason and also because it was the first time I realised how you pronounced ‘Napoleon’. 

 I had read the word – probably in Look and Learn magazines –  but had no idea how to pronounce it.

Napoleon was, I think, played by either David Jason or Terry Jones.  The sketch  was from  Do Not Adjust Your Set, a tv series made in Britain in the late 1960s by several people who went on to form of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

It is best described as a kind of children’s version of Monty Python, although it pre-dates that series.

It was shown in New Zealand in the early 1970s –  I think 1972.

And I loved it.  The combination of eccentricity,  humour,  and historical references like the one above was just magical.

It was just so gloriously different. 

It’s been on my mind at the moment because I threw together an iTunes music playlist for a road trip last month labelled “Brits” which included the obvious ones such as the Kinks and Madness and Ian Dury and the Jam and the Smiths…and then, for light relief, the Bonzos.

Vivian Stanshall was…well, an alcoholic nutter, and probably rather awkward to be around. A brilliant eccentric, though.

The Bonzos only had one hit – I’m the Urban Spaceman – and the B side was this lovely piece.

I first heard this on a jukebox in an Auckland cafe, sometime in the mid-eighties, and lay on the floor under the table laughing uncontrollably.



Victoria Wood

“I know I’ve got a degree. Why does that mean I have to spend my life with intellectuals? I’ve got a lifesaving certificate but I don’t spend my evenings diving for a rubber brick with my pyjamas on.”

Genuine laugh-out-loud line from Victoria Wood. This is becoming the Year of Obituaries – she died of cancer overnight, only 62.

First time I saw her was on one of the Secret Policeman’s Ball concert films – she sang a song about being fed up with men. It seemed a shame. She seemed quite cuddly.

It seemed a shame. She seemed quite cuddly.

She actually seemed a bit out of place amongst the clever if rather cold English comedians who dominated that sort of show – sharp and clever, certainly, but with a down-to-earth warmth which they lacked.

Sometimes the infectious jolliness got a bit OTT but this has some very clever lines. It’s about babyboomers.




Light, intelligent, witty reading: ‘Dear Committee Members’ by Julie Schumacker

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacker Doubleday 2014

“I’m glad we have different last names” was the reaction of Julie Schumacker’s  husband when he read the first draft of this book.

The prudent chap was no doubt worried about the hostages to fortune in this neat, funny novel of decaying campus life. I think Schumacker and her husband are both American academics, and the characterisation of Jay Fitger, a cynical and verbosely angry English professor in a decaying Midwest university is not flattering.

I don’t know if letters of recommendation (LOR) are a thing in New Zealand academia  – I kind of hope the Kiwi informality means people just pick up a phone.

Or, more likely, work out who they know in common  – ‘cos there’s bound to be a few people – and call them.

Anyway, this is a short but very funny novel, made up mostly of letters of recommendation, or letters and emails about letters of recommendation.

“Epistolatory Novels” have been around since the start of the novel as an art form – Ol’ Sam Richardson kicked the genre off around about the time of the War of Jenkins’ Ear. They’re a good way to do comedy: they can reveal so much character. They also give the smart alecky folks who read campus novels a chance to smirk knowingly.

Which is what happens here – but as the book goes on the sardonic distance between the reader and Fitger gradually closes. He isn’t just a generator Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 10.06.32 amof witty, knowing and disconsolate lines.

Fitger is bored and frustrated, mostly: his own career as a novelist has fizzled and his marriage has busted up after having an affair: unfortunately both his ex and the woman he had the disastrous affair with are now people he needs to beg for professional and personal favours, and many of these letters show him doing just that.

His department, English, has had its funding frozen if not shrunk and much of the time he is fighting a rearguard action, and petty turf and status wars, against more favoured faculties (Economics, which has inherited some of English’’s resources, is a particular enemy.

Yes, as well as being an epistolatory novel, it is also one of that more recent genre, the comic campus novel, something which is more of an English than an American speciality, and there is something of a middle aged, disappointed and jaded trans-Atlantic ‘Lucky Jim’ about Fitger.

Much of the time he is trying to stave off boredom and a crippling sense of futility: a former pupil seeking preferment at a supermarket is recommended as a writer who had submitted a story

about an inebriated man who tumbles into a café and surfaces form an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster –  a sort of fanged and copiously salivating octopus, if memory serves – is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin….
Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea, but Mr Leszczynski is an affable young man, reliable in his habits, and reasonably bright.
You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.”

Attempts to recommend the department’s surly IT “help” desk staffer for a job grow in intensity, and I think we’ve all dealt with the type who” clearly suffers under the burden of our collective ignorance. Mr Napp demonstrates  all the winsome ebullience one expects these days from a young person inclined to socialise with machines rather than human beings….whatever I can do to assist in your – or any other firms – hiring of Mr Napp I will accomplish with resolution and zeal.”

Those excerpts give the book’s flavour…but as the story develops Fitger shows his heart – well, some of it – in highly guarded fashion.

It’s well worth a read.

Recommended, in fact.

Link hilarity.


“Your detectives are a fine body of men, working hard to keep the public safe from satanists, diamond thieves and nutters armed with hammers. I salute them. 
But what hideous neckties they all wear! …Is it any wonder that the streets of London are full of glue sniffers, if this is the example the police set?” 
The genial lunatic atChase Me Ladies, I’m in the Cavalry  appears to be back.