You don’t have to be mad to work here but…

XJP

Amidst all the current razzmatazz over the Joyous Tidings of the 19th Party Congress and the mighty Uncle Xi, a tweet from a fine Chinese scholar notes the dazzling series of media eulogies from babies, kindergartens, primary schools, secondary schools, universities, the elderly, the religious, the sick, and criminals [sic], asking “Whatever next? Series of eulogies from animals, toys, and coffee?” Good old social media…

So, in the spirit of the Anthology of folk tales of the Chinese peoples (Zhongguo minjian gushi jicheng), this is as good a time as any to tell another classic story (somewhat in the vein of the old Brezhnev joke) about the hapless former leader whom I shall call “Lee Beng”:

Lee Beng is paying an official courtesy visit to a hospital for the criminally insane. All the inmates are gathered together in the hall and Lee climbs onto the platform, announcing grandiosely:

“Comrades! On behalf of the Politburo of the Central Chinese Communist Party and the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, I would like to sincerely extend my warmest greetings!”

One loony leans over to the guy sitting next to him and goes,

“So we’ve got a new arrival then…”

This week’s dinner party

Guests for my fantasy dinner party this week (Friday to Monday):

Jaroslav Hašek, Stella Gibbons, Flann O’Brien, Harpo Marx, Keith Richards, Viv Albertine, Zoe Williams, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Caitlin Moran, Diane Morgan [far-fetched stage name of Philomena Cunk—Ed.], and Bridget Christie.

Dress optional. 1859 for 1900. That gives them 41 years.

It might be churlish of me to worry that Hašek and Myles might not shine in a large mixed group. But hey, it’s a fantasy.

Myles: a glowing paean, or The life of O’Brien

What’s all this fuss about Flann O’Brien, I hear you ask. (One perceptive tribute by Kevin McMahon is penned entirely in the form of a Mylesian pub conversation). [1] Padraig Colman, in a fine series of detailed tributes, sums him up dispassionately as “a morose drunk who led an uneventful life as a senior civil servant in Dublin”.

Well, for one thing, as fellow Flanneurs will know, he was an astute observer of “Poor suffering Hugh Manity”, that’s why. He was a dedicated chronicler of the Hugh Mann condition—a common and distressing affliction. He had a keen ear for the conversation of The Plain People of Ireland, The Brother, and insufferable bores of any Ilk, whether pretentious or just trite. He had the Cut of their Jib, whatever that is. His intolerance of cant (and doubtless Kant) has brought him a cult following [Autospell running amok?—Ed.].

Apart from The Man Who Has Read It In Manuscript, another snowclone that is constantly on the lips of the aficionado is

The Man Who Spoke Irish At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular.

This meretricious character inevitably takes a bow in the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché,

a unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public.

Of what was any deceased citizen you like to mention typical?
Of all that is best in Irish life.
Correct. With what qualities did he endear himself to all who knew him?
His charm of manner and unfailing kindness.
Yes. But with what particularly did he impress all those he came in contact with?
His sterling qualities of mind, loftiness of intellect and unswerving devotion to the national cause.
What article of his was always at the disposal of the national language?
His purse.
And what more abstract assistance was readily offered to those who sought it?
The fruit of his wide reading and profound erudition.
At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
With what cause did he never disguise the fact that his sympathies lay?
The cause of national independence.
And at what time?
At a time when lesser men were content with the rôle of time-server and sycophant.
What was he in his declining years?
Though frail of health, indefatigable in his exertions on behalf of his less fortunate fellow men.
Whom did he marry in 1879?
A Leitrim Lady.
And at what literary work was he engaged at the time of his death?
His monumental work on The Oghams of Tipperary.
And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.

Looby describes Myles as

a postmodernist at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular,

and McMahon signs off with a flourish:

When did you start reading this stuff?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.

(Go, and never darken my towels again—Rufus T. Firefly)

What with our Psalm, and our Sermon, I hereby declare our impertinent sequence of Trois petites liturgies quorate.

OK, watch this, now I’m going to make a subtle transition (and Myles would have relished the voiceover to Away from it all):

Gondolas, gondolas, gondolas. Everywhere… gondolas.
But there’s more to Venice than gondolas […]
We pause to reflect that despite its cathedrals,
its palaces, its bustling markets,
and its priceless legacy of renaissance art,
the one thing that Venice truly lacks—is leprechauns.
[scene changes] But there’s no shortage of leprechauns here:
Yes, Ireland, the emerald island…

Here we are again. Normal service resumed. A critic, and a critic of critics, Flann O’Brien discussed art, music, and theatre acutely—sometimes even more acutely than this:

Literary criticism
My grasp of what he wrote and meant
Was sometimes only five or six %.
The rest was only words and sound—
My reference is to Ezra £.

He would have enjoyed my Heifetz story too.

His Keats and Chapman series is full of shameless yet often arcane puns:

“My dear girl”, he said, “You have been living in F. Huehl’s pair o’dice.”
When she was gone he turned to Chapman.
“F. Huehl and his Monet are soon parted,” he observed.

Some more from Groucho:

“Sir, you try my patience!”
“I don’t mind if I do—you must come over and try mine sometime.”

For all his withering disdain for pretension, Myles’s essays are liberally sprinkled with French, German, and what Peter Cook, in a not-unMylesian sketch, called “The Latin”:

(or for surly purists, the full authentic urtext here).

Nor is the Catechism of Cliché limited to English. It becomes increasingly unhinged (as one does):

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Mulieres eorum.

And one for the Jesuit sinologist, methinks:

Noli me quidere?
Tang.

And, for the Indologist, no trawl through the Milesian ouevre would be complete without

Ubi nemo mi lacessit (inquit Gandhi)?
In Poona.

In 2016, writing in The Irish Times (since Myles’s day, allegedly an organ otherwise less hilarious than The China Daily), Frank McNally did a rather good sequel on the elections. Indeed, it’s a fun game to play. One day, if you don’t watch your step, I may regale you with my very own Catechism of Orchestral Cliché. You have been warned. [Oh all right then, if you insist—here you are.]

On my visits to Germany I constantly giggle at Myles’s Buchhandlung service:

A visit that I paid to the house of a newly married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. […] Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty of observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting.
I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.
“When I get settled down properly,” said the fool, “I’ll have to catch up on my reading.”
This is what set me thinking. Why would a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not [pay] a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

Tweety McTangerine take note…

And we haven’t even discussed At-swim-two-birds or The third policeman, Begob. Here one may even detect a certain affinity with Cold comfort farm. As Myles observed,

It goes without Synge that many of my writings are very fine indeed.

I can only deplore the paucity in his oeuvre of allusions to fieldwork reports on Daoist ritual. And vice versa.

He survived longer than Hašek, but drank himself to an early grave (“But it’s not even closing time yet!”, I hear him exclaim) in 1966—sadly not in time to reflect

If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink—I’d spend it on drink.

A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man

There are some nice radio and TV tributes online, like

and the only filmed interview with the Great Man, here. And even interviews with people who knew him, here.

One last time—Altogether Now:

At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.
So what capital adornment do I take off to him?
(It’s your turn.)

[1] Other discussions include https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/the-best-of-myles-by-flann-obrien/ and Robert Looby at http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/o/OBrien_F/xtras/xtra5.htm. Note also the egregious Flann O’Brien society, with its weighty bibliography.

Worrying echoes from history

Another “Remind you of anybody?” exchange from Duck Soup:

Minister of Finance: “Here is the Treasury Department’s report, sir. I hope you’ll find it clear.”
Rufus T. Firefly: “Clear? Huh! Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report. [to secretary] Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail of it.”

Note: Either Firefly or Tweety is a caricature. The more far-fetched one is quite capable of writing his own gags, better than we could ever dream up. And to what avail are our easy jibes?

1066

As any fule no, The Battle of Hastings was held not at Hastings but at nearby Battle—cf. Groucho (as Rufus T. Firefly) in Duck soup:

Ambassador: “I am willing to do anything to prevent this war.”
Rufus T. Firefly: “It’s too late. I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.”

To modern ears The Battle of Battle sounds rather cool, but You Know Those Mediaevals, they were looking for something more catchy.

Anyway, here’s the purpose of this fatuous preamble:

A friend of mine stopped off at a general store just outside Battle to buy some provisions. The bill came to £10.66.

***

On the shelves of another village store, I noticed not price-tags but jokes. I still use

What’s yellow, got 22 legs, and goes “crunch crunch”?
A Chinese football team, eating crisps.

This almost gets us to the classic joke of the Li family—after the final credits of my film, not to be missed!