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Wikipedia: Foe of whimsy.

February 3, 2019

I got my copy of THE PAUL JENNINGS READER down from the humour shelf (1) in order to have something to read during my morning bowel movements today.

I have a copy after having heard him praised as a precursor to Douglas Adams by my friend Roger. I’d never been in the habit of reading the newspapers in which he appeared in his lifetime and was surprised to discover Griff Rhys Jones singing his praises in the introduction. We were in the same student production of ROMEO & JULIET long, long ago. Griff and I, I mean. Ah memories.

My relationship with Roger, I should say, isn’t like that of Jennings and his friend Harblow, which is the same as Michael Green and his friend Jack Askew in the COARSE series. Which is to say that Harblow and Askew are even more incompetent than the narrator at whatever they are trying to  do. Roger is more Ford Prefect to my Arthur Dent: he actually knows stuff and I just bumble around trying to look harmless while occasionally protesting about the unfairness of the universe.

Anyway, though I had picked it up to try to find the account of the time he met T.S.Eliot at a party, that’s a long way into the book and I came across two early pieces which were very typical of his style.

The first was ACTIVATED SLUDGE about a sign to that effect he had seen in Victoria Street SW1. He wrote two pages on the romance of that phrase and how he didn’t need to know what it meant to conjure up a picture of a great British export industry.

And the very next piece was HOW TO SPIEL HALMA in which he and Harblow attempt to figure out how to play the board game Halma from the instructions in German, by stringing together the few words they recognised.

And then I had to be That Guy.

I went and looked them both up on Wikipeidia. Such is the white hot heat of the technological revolution in the Cule household that I could do it without interrupting my morning toilet which was just as well. ACTIVATED SLUDGE is indeed a great British industry and one I have no doubt we export to the world and the Wiki article also taught me what the phrase ‘biological floc’ means which makes me one of the lucky ten thousand for today.

And the article for Halma told me not only how to play it, what the board looks like but also the name and nationality of the inventor and what British game (now even more obscure than Halma) he had taken inspiration from.

And it now occurs to me that the schtick Jennings was using, of deliberate ignorance to create whimsy (2), has lost all credibility in the age of the Internet. We are all ‘That Guy’ and supercharged pedants with humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips.

Only the fact that we can read plain statements in our own language and get them completely wrong stops us from becoming permanently serious. Thank God for our incompetence!

(1) Yes, dear readers I am at least slightly organised.

(2) There’s probably a Greek name for it.

  1. Terry Pratchett was also a fan and borrower – the “Vimes Theory of Boots” is straight out of Jennings.

    It seems to me that one can still do this sort of thing, but it takes a bit more effort. Yes, you won’t waste an afternoon trying to work out the rules of a board game (with some exceptions); but you can still see a shop/office frontage in Fitzrovia, consisting entirely of black glass with the words “International Coffee Organisation” done discreetly in gold, and build a pleasing fantasy of the rough men of the ICO, parachuting into dodgy Latin American republics to make sure the supply of arabica continues uninterrupted…

    And as for looking at their Wikipedia page, well, they would say that wouldn’t they?

    • Looking at their Wikipedia page, the ICO does look like ideal cover for something like UNIT or UNCLE.

      And there is a certain bitterness in my heart that the International Tea Committee looks a lot less glamorous.

      • Ah, but the International Tea Committee is surely the grey men, the sort of people who would have been colonial administrators, casually condemning thousands to death to make the books balance a little more neatly.

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