I was curled up on the settee in an assemblage of old cushions, rugs, and quilts – lovingly described by my son’s girlfriend as my ‘nest’. All I could manage was filling balsam tissues with the battlegrounds of white blood cells, and coaxing my immune system with cold remedies, hot tea, and hotter Ribena. So it came as quite a shock to learn that William Shakespeare had no sense of humour.
I’ve been telling myself (and my creative writing guests), that the richness of the English langauge, and its readiness to take part in punning and double-entendre, stems from its several origins: via Anglo-Saxon routes (as in the thing that Philip Larkin said our mum and dad did to us1) and the Romance (as spoken by Romans) languges, which gave us that phrase “double entendre” and mutton and possibly the word “pun” itself2. (There are other sources of diversity: anorak from the Inuit peoples; thugs were Indian robbers and assassins who revered the goddess Kali; Japan offers emoji, karaoke and tofu.
And now here was none other than Douglas Adams 3 telling me that WHS was alone in being “the only one who couldn’t make a joke to save his life” and that “our greatest writing genius was incapable of being funny”, in contrast with his favourite P. G. Wodehouse, whose “entire genius was for being funny in such a sublime way as to put mere poetry in the shade”.
Well, perhaps puns aren’t funny, although when we were studying ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Mrs Myers at Hatfield Girls’ Grammar I did enjoy in my semi-innocent way the bawdiness of the nurse and the double entendres that she, Mercutio, and others dropped into the dialogue, for vulgar laughs.
Whereas – Wodehouse? Douglas Adams characterises him as “the greatest musician of the English language”, and this – coming from the writer who esteems Johann Sebastian Bach above all other composers – is praise indeed.
As Adams tells us, “Keats would have been proud to have written ‘the smile vanished from his face like breath off a razor-blade’ ” and who knows, perhaps William Shakespeare would have been impressed too, not least to see a razor blade so shiny.
Perhaps when I am well enough to stagger to the local Library Bus, I’ll look out a P. G. Wodehouse book set at Blandlings. What’s excellent in the eyes of Douglas Adams may at least raise a titter and a sneeze from me.
1 Philip Larkin’s 1971 poem ‘This be the verse’ starts with “They fuck you up, your mum and dad…”
2 Chambers Dictionary 1994 includes both pun and pundigrion /pun-digri-on/ (obs) n a pun. [Origin unknown; Ital. puntiglio is only a conjecture]
3 Douglas Adams, 2003, The Salmon of Doubt, Pan McMillan, 64-65. ‘The Salmon of Doubt’ – a collection of short stories , articles, and non-fiction writing – was published posthumously and subtitled ‘Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time’