Archive for November, 2011


First course in humour

November 16, 2011

When I was a kid, the family bookshelf reflected the eclectic tastes and lives of my parents. In a low pine bookshelf and a tall Ikea bookshelf, standing side by side in the cork-floored sunroom (remember when houses had sunrooms?), I recall Ian Fleming novels, a copy of The Lord of the Rings that I tried to read several times before declaring it and its ilk annoying and ridiculous pap – an opinion I still hold. There was an illustrated hardback called The Bull Pen that Mum had bought for Dad, full of terrible puns, such as a foul-tempered drawing of a bull titled ‘IRASCIBULL’. I still chuckle when I see it in op shops. We had the full set of supermarket encyclopaedias, superficially handsome World Books in navy with gold lettering, that Dad thought we should read endlessly. We didn’t. He also went nuts at a kid’s book fair once and bought a whole library of children’s reference books which were awesome – drawings of people in their mediaeval lives, cross-section of cells, books on how the Earth formed. Mum’s 1970s social work texts peppered the shelves and revisited the title (but not the contents) of I’m OK, You’re OK many times, trying to work out what that meant. There was a slim tome with lots of diagrams of exercising moustached Canadian air force men claiming one could be top-fit with just a handful of vigorous exercises in your terry-toweling tracksuit.

I started early on the classics from this shelf – Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, A Christmas Carol. I still have the mangy copy of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with the name of Dad’s first love written in biro inside the cover. She died unexpectedly, very young, and I know nothing about her but her name. Dad’s other contributions were some racy novels that were very informative; I expect the rather surprising Erotic Art of Pompeii was his, too, and I pretended that I’d never noticed it.

There was one book on the shelf that had my brother and me in stitches. It was Dad’s Latin textbook from his brutal Christian Brothers school. Originally titled ‘LATIN FOR TODAY: First Course’, it was otherwise a very dull bunch of words in a dead language about Marculius and Jerrianus (or whatever) within a ratty avocado green cloth cover. The bit that tickled our juvenile fancies was the modification effected upon the cover by our young father. With a few pen strokes, and some dedicated replication of the title’s serifs, he’d turned it into ‘EATING FOR TODAY: First Course Eggs and Bacon’.

That is one of the formative jokes of my young life. It still tickles my fancy.

Last week I spotted a book in an op shop that, while without the highbrow sophistication of Dad’s joke, was surely forged in the same fire.