Five books

James Robertson on five works of comic fiction he admires

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

Based on the true story of the S.S. Politician, which sank off the Hebridean island of Eriskay in 1941 with a large cargo of Scotch whisky bound for America, Mackenzie's novel was published in 1947 and concerns the 'rescuing' of thousands of bottles from the wreck of the S.S. Cabinet Minister by the inhabitants of Great Todday and Little Todday, and the subsequent battle of wits between the islanders and the authorities, who want to recover the missing drink. Mackenzie knew the Hebrides and their people well, so was able to flesh out this promising scenario with some fine characterisation and a keen eye for local colour. The list of invented brands of whisky in the middle of the book is simply glorious. Ealing Studios made the novel into a hugely successful film and added an exclamation mark to the title!

 

At Swim-two-birds by Flann O'Brien

I came across O'Brien's weird and wonderful The Third Policeman by accident as a teenager, and this led me to the rest of his novels, of which my favourite remains his 1939 experiment At Swim-two-birds. I have lost count of the number of times I have read it, but its multi-dimensional mix of Irish legend with the dissolute life of a Dublin undergraduate who is writing a novel, within which another novel exists from which the characters escape in order to take revenge on their tyrannical author - well, it never fails to enthral me. The writing is strange and rich and beautiful, the whole thing a surrealistic masterpiece. James Joyce said of O'Brien, 'That's a real writer, with the true comic spirit', and I can't disagree.

 

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

No one wrote more sparingly or with more biting wit than Muriel Spark. This novel from 1960 tells the story of Dougal Douglas, MA, who arrives from Edinburgh to 'bring vision into the lives of the workers' in a Peckham firm, and brings deceit, fraud, blackmail, sex and murder instead. With more than a nod at the Scottish literary obsession with devils in human form (Dougal likes to point out the lumps on his head where his horns used to be), Spark is devastatingly unforgiving of her characters' failings and petty desires, and of their insistent bleating that everything that goes wrong is Dougal's fault. Spark makes you laugh alongside her even as she makes you feel bad about doing so.

 

The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse's use of language combined with his sense of timing make him an absolute master of comedy. I once begged a BBC producer to let me abridge this Jeeves and Wooster novel for radio: I should have known better. Wodehouse's plotting is so tight that as soon as you take one element out a whole lot more, sometimes several chapters further on, collapse in a heap. By the time I had finished the abridgment I had even greater respect for the author and for this book in particular. It concerns a nightmare stay at Deverill Hall for Bertie, where he goes on a mission of mercy impersonating Gussie Fink-Nottle only to find Gussie already in residence impersonating one Bertram Wooster. And all against the backdrop of a 'surging sea of aunts'. Timeless genius.

 

Para Handy by Neil Munro

Between 1905 and 1923 these tales of the skipper and crew of the Vital Spark, a Clyde puffer delivering coal and other goods from Glasgow up and down the Argyll coast and as far as the Hebrides, were published in the Glasgow Evening News to great popular acclaim. Munro's fine ear for dialogue and his ability to conjure up situations of the most absurd kind have made the stories Scottish classics, and although the world they depict is long gone in reality, thanks to Munro it will last as long as people like laughing. The Gaelic intonations of Para Handy and his cronies, overlaid with pitch-perfect Scots syntax and vocabulary, give the stories an aural uniqueness. These are men too often burdened with the cares of hard work who would much rather be up to 'high jeenks' - and often are. If P.G. Wodehouse had been a Scot, he would have written stories like these.

 

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To Be Continued

James Robertson

SHORTLISTED FOR THE WODEHOUSE COMIC FICTION PRIZE 2017

An utterly mad, entirely heart-warming Highland adventure from the Man Booker-longlisted author of And the Land lay Still

Douglas is fifty years old - he's just lost his job, been kicked out by his girlfriend and moved back into his dad's house. Just when things are starting to look hopeless, he makes a very unexpected new friend: a talking toad.

Mungo is a wise-cracking, straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of toad - and he is determined to get Douglas's life back on track. Together, man and beast undertake a madcap quest to the distant Highlands, hot on the trail of a hundred-year-old granny, a beautiful Greek nymph, a split-personality alcoholic/teetotaller, a reluctant whisky-smuggler, and the elusive glimmer of redemption . . .

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