There are certain books that, if they did not in literal fact save my life, felt as if they did. Back in 1987, I had just started at University, and I happened by chance (ah, but was it?) to buy an omnibus volume of novels by the almost forgotten Victorian comic writer F. Anstey. It was the weekend and there was an essay I had to write. But instead I read, at first with enjoyment and then with a kind of feverish obsession, starting I think on the Saturday and right through that evening and all through the Sunday, the first story in the volume – Vice Versa (1882).
The first modern body swap tale, source of Freaky Friday and others, it tells of respectable Mr Bultitude and the time he told his son, who didn’t want to go to boarding school, that one’s school years were the best years of a boy’s life and how he himself would simply love to be going instead of him. By pure mischance holding a magic amulet at the time, he turns into his son (and the son, seizing his chance, makes another wish to turn into his father) – so that poor Mr Bultitude actually has to go to boarding school and endure the bullying, embarrassment, humiliation, contempt, and every other “character-forming” thing that children are expected to endure as if they liked it.
I laughed till I felt faint; I cringed; I could not stop reading. I never went to boarding school, thank God, but still that silly, magical tale exorcised so much of what I suddenly knew I felt about the childhood I had just left for ever. I can’t remember if I ever wrote that essay. But reading Vice Versa will be in my memory for ever.
Some books are like that. They were only ever meant to be fun, but somehow they have more in them; something that illuminates and heals. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (1990) is one of those books (and now, one of those TV series).
It’s a trivial little tale encompassing the history of the world, religion, morality, fate, life, death, and humanity. If it didn’t have the jokes, it could plausibly be the Bible of a new religion. The angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who have been on Earth for its entire 6000 year existence and who like it well enough just as it is thank you very much, find to their horror that Armageddon is upon them, and that both Heaven and Hell are dead set on it going ahead as planned. Only Aziraphale and Crowley can stop the Apocalypse, with the help of a few ineffectual-seeming humans, and a boy called Adam Young. It’s as funny as Pratchett and Gaiman could make it, which is very funny indeed. It’s also deeply thought through, and full of a sort of wisdom.
I remember when Good Omens came out. I was already a Pratchett fan, and I was curious to know what this new one would be like; a departure from his Discworld series, and a collaboration to boot. The end of the world was in the air; it was ten years before the Millennium, and almost subconsciously a lot of us felt that if things were going to end, that would be a good date for it. Robert Rankin’s even wackier Armageddon: The Musical came out about the same time, with some coincidental similarities; both feature Armageddon (obviously) and also (less obviously) Elvis.
Well, as you may know Good Omens is now a TV series from Amazon and the BBC. I’m not going to comment on the series, because I haven’t seen it yet – I’m going to wait for the DVD, for secret reasons. I have however got the script book by Neil Gaiman and the CD soundtrack by David Arnold (both gorgeous). This thirty year old tale somehow seems very timely for today.
I follow Neil Gaiman of Twitter and I’ve been struck by stuff he’s been retweeting in recent days, about how Good Omens has helped people, both now and over the years, to cope with aspects of themselves and other people. I wouldn’t be comfortable quoting the tweets, which express things that are often very personal to those people. But it is clear that the tale of Good Omens does speak to a lot of people at a very personal level, and has helped them, not always in the ways you might expect.
Look, I know all this seems to be very rambling. But in fact I’m circling round a thing that I want to say. It goes, perhaps, something like this. Comedies don’t have to be about trivial things. I mean, they can be, and some of the best are. Three Men in a Boat, for instance. But some comedies, including some of the oldest in the world, are about the big fundamental things.
The Birds by Aristophanes (414 BC) is about two men who come to an arrangement with the Kingdom of the Birds. They argue like this. The birds command the region of the air, right? Now if the gods in heaven want to communicate with humans on earth, or vice versa, everything has to go through the air in between, right? Prayers, sacrificial offerings, thunderbolts, everything. So… if the birds were to set up a hard border and customs posts between earth and heaven, they could hold the gods themselves to ransom. And so it passes that our Athenian heroes usurp and supplant Zeus and all the gods.
And don’t get me started on the Book of Jonah, which I am seriously convinced was written as a kind of ancient Ninevan joke book about the world’s worst prophet.
You can write about the biggest things in the world, and you can make it funny. In fact, that can sometimes be the best way of all to do it. Because when you’re being funny, you’re getting rid of your mental filters, and you’re also factoring in things like the fact that human beings have an awkward tendency to go about being human, which people can forget while writing a Serious Work.
Take, for instance, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979).
Here is another brilliantly funny book that seeks to explain the deepest things – indeed, Life, the Universe and Everything. Why are we here? What is our purpose in life? Why are we so obsessed with our digital watches? And if it turns out that we are all part of an enormous computer program with a bug in the system, is that more unlikely than many other explanations that have been offered?
Douglas Adams once explained something about the book. It’s quoted in Don’t Panic by (wait for it) Neil Gaiman:
“1976 was my worst year. I’d decided I was hopeless at writing and I’d never earn any money at it. I felt hopeless and helpless and beached…. In Hitchhiker’s there’s an element of writing myself back up out of that. I was surprised and delighted to find a lot of letters from people in the early days would say, ‘I was terribly depressed and upset until I sat down and read your book. It’s really shown me the way up again.’ I wrote it to do this for myself, and it’s seemed to have the same effect on a lot of other people. I can’t explain it. Perhaps I’ve inadvertently written a self-help book.” Neil Gaiman, Don’t Panic: the official Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy companion (1988, Titan Books), page 21.
And then (this is my last example, I promise) there’s The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (1908).
The Man Who Was Thursday takes the form of a mad, funny thriller in which our hero, Gabriel Syme, infiltrates a Council of Anarchists, each being called by a day of the week. I don’t want to say much more about it, because it goes in amazing directions which I don’t want to spoil for the reader, even though it’s over 100 years old. However, it goes to the heart of issues which many people (including me) struggle with almost every day, about our relationship with the world and other people. Chesterton wrote it in the aftermath of a personal crisis in his mind which took him to very dark places. He thought himself out of it by a process of the deliberate seeking of hope and light; some of that journey from the dark to the light is also in the book. And, like Hitchhiker’s Guide, this surreal tale has helped other people. Chesterton wrote about it in his Autobiography (1936), and while the terms he uses are not the ones we would select today, the point still holds:
“[I want to quote] a distinguished psycho-analyst, of the most modern and scientific sort…. he made my hair stand on end by saying that he had found my very juvenile story useful as a corrective among his morbid patients…. ‘I know a number of men who nearly went mad,’ he said quite gravely, ‘but were saved because they really understood The Man Who Was Thursday.’ He must have been rather generously exaggerative; he may have been mad himself, of course; but then so was I. But I confess it flatters me to think that, in this my period of lunacy, I may have been a little useful to other lunatics.” G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography (Hamish Hamilton, 1986), pages 103-4.
I don’t know exactly how Good Omens was written, but I seem to see a little of Hitchhiker’s Guide in it, and perhaps something of Thursday too. Lest the latter idea should seem too fanciful, it should be noted that Good Omens is dedicated to Chesterton….
These are exactly the kind of books that I would love to write myself; and if I knew the formula, I’d be writing them. It seems to be something to do with taking the biggest, most vital things that go deepest into our mental needs, and letting them react in the mind with a certain naturally humorous attitude. It’s something to do with facing our worst fears, and with the boldness that comes with humour.
After all, these works seem to whisper to us, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not the end of the world….