Class conscious

I am editing a dictionary of humorous quotations, which gives me a chance to disinter some of my heroes, such as Viv Stanshall. I love the waking cry of his aristocratic alter ego in the comedy saga Sir Henry At Rawlinson End: "I don't know what I want but I want it now!" It is difficult to classify that remark by subject, but I am determined to get Stanshall in somewhere, and Patrick Campbell and Stephen Potter.

Potter, who wrote cod guides to "getting on" in society, will be in under the heading "Babies". "Indeed it is clear," he wrote, "that babies are by nature one-up. Whatever they do, it is your fault, and your fault entirely." Potter was a nervous character who seems to have smoked himself to death in 1969, and Campbell was not quite the urbane, patrician figure he appeared on Call My Bluff. He was born into the governing classes of Dublin, and could never quite believe that being funny was a legitimate pursuit.

Had he written long, boring novels instead of essays on, for example, how time seemed to come to a stop when you entered a certain hardware store in London, Campbell would not have needed to be so jittery.

Except, it seems, in my own personal case, the writing of novels is a pretty sure guarantee of social success, and the longer and more boring the better. The whole game is reminiscent of the words of Paul Pennyfeather as he wearily begins his career as a schoolteacher in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall (which is the very opposite of a long, boring novel): "There will be a prize of half a crown for the longest essay irrespective of any possible merit."

It's very unfair because, whereas most good, humorous writers could write long and boring novels if they wanted, most long and boring novelists could not write humour. It's like that old joke: "What's the difference between a bird and a fly? A bird can fly but a fly can't bird." The truly funny writers are the birds, yet snobbery ensures that there are no black-tie awards for them, no fellowships, no 3,000-word reviews. Just cigarettes, neuroses and the belated attentions of dictionary compilers and other species of mortician.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Lord Snooty and his party pals