Archive for October, 2010

A Fishy Story

I’ve been a fan of Louis de Bernieres since his first book, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts. I bought it new in hardback, and bought every book since. I bought Captain Corelli’s Mandolin on the day of publication, and foolishly failed to sell it when copies of the first edition were selling for £400. That figure plummeted when the film came out (and wasn’t very good).

So it’s with sadness that I say one short story in the latest short story collection, Notwithstanding, is unworthy of him. The story Colonel Barkwell, Troodos and the Fish is simply an ancient joke, elaborately written up. The story is well-known. There’s a dinner party. They’re going to serve fish (or chicken). The cat eats some. They serve the guests. They go in the kitchen and find the cat lying there dead. Everyone rushes to hospital and has their stomachs pumped. They return to find a note, ‘Sorry, I killed / ran over your cat …’ Let’s not even consider whether a hospital would think a stomach-pump effective for rapidly-multiplying salmonella bacteria, though de Bernieres does get around that question by making the Colonel in the story so obnoxious while insisting on a stomach-pump, that the doctor decides to let him have it.

The Sick Cat: Illustration by Paul Sample from Connections in Reading A

I wrote a version of this story myself back in 1986, as The Sick Cat in Connections in Reading A. In my feline-friendly version, it’s chicken rather than fish, and the cat survives too. And I had an illustration from that great illustrator Paul Sample (above). I don’t accuse de Bernieres of plagiarism (though I believe he was an ELT teacher). I had heard the story when Tony Blackburn told it on the radio, and adapted it. It’s in several joke books. Richmal Crompton used similar in a William story in the 1930s. De Bernieres wrapped the old joke elaborately and did it far better than me, but please! For a major novelist this is shameful.

I would add that the excellent story The Happy Death of the General in the same Notwithstanding collection first appeared in a newspaper magazine in 2001. It’s customary to announce the earlier publication in the front matter. De Bernieres put all the previously published references in the back, hidden in a long Afterword. You don’t see them until you’ve finished, because who reads the last two pages of a new book first?

A Funny Thing Happened To Me: Streamline English Destinations, Unit 10

This reminds me of  A Funny Thing Happened To Me, a story I wrote with Bernie Hartley  in 1980 for Streamline Destinations. Five years later Jeffrey Archer used the same story in A Quiver Full of Arrows. Someone then accused us of lifting it, and we were appalled. Not so much at the idea of having lifted it, but from the idea of lifting it from Jeffrey Archer. In fact we all took the basic story from Woody Allen. Bernie and I changed Woody Allen’s ‘s mistakenly purloined cigarettes on a train to mistakenly purloined biscuits in a station café. Archer didn’t take as much trouble and wrote it just as Woody had told it.


Read Full Post »

End of story / End of.

Language viruses continued. After years being irritated by the previous government mantra of “Let’s move on …” (see below), we find that the Coalition has abandoned the catch phrase, but sadly replaced it with an equally irritating one. “End of story.”

It’s used to say, “You’ve been told my view. That’s it. I’m too important to answer further questions or to listen to any counter-argument whatsoever.”  One particularly arrogant twerp of a minister at the Conservative party conference managed to say it three times to the BBC interviewer within a couple of minutes. I’ve heard it three times since from ministers, most recently this morning.

It’s different to “Let’s move on.” That’s oily, and obnoxious, casting the questioner as someone who won’t let go of a point that has come to bore everyone else. “End of story” is just plain arrogant.


Last night “Have I Got News For You” had a clip of the new Children’s Minister avoiding an interview in a corridor. This guy couldn’t even be bothered to complete the phrase. He just snapped “End of.” at the interviewer four times in thirty seconds.

Read Full Post »


R.I.P. Norman Wisdom, died aged 95. To his surprise, this comedian found himself an icon in Albania in his declining years. Apparently his movies were the only Western films shown during the communist era.

Anyway, on Radio Two, they told a story to mark his departure. A few years ago, the European parliament was debating regional food names, like Parmesan cheese, Brunswick ham,  Bakewell tart, Cornish pasties and so on. The debate turned to Normandy butter. The French delegate spoke at length, saying issues would be resolved by the natural common-sense of the farmers of Normandy. At this point, the British delegation were crying with laughter. The simultaneous translation through their headphones was “All problems will be solved by Norman Wisdom.”

Read Full Post »

Greetings cards

As an author, greetings cards make me seethe with resentment. You can only get £7.99 retail for a 400 page paperback with a beautifully illustrated glossy cover. If you take out and discard the 400 pages of text, and print a few trite words on the inside of the remaining glossy cover, you have the equivalent of a greetings card and can charge £2.99 for it.

65% of greetings cards are bought by women. If I look at my birthday cards in any given year, nearly all are from female relatives and friends. The guys don’t send them. Fair enough, I don’t send them cards either. If you hear a cry of “Great! Look! A card shop!” in the High Street, the chances are it will be soprano rather than baritone. The behaviour of women and men in a card shop is different too. If you stand in one for any length of time, you observe that those quietly browsing are female, while the odd male darts in, looks, chooses, pays, and is out in two minutes. There is a serious discrepancy in communication here. You can bet that the woman who spends fifteen minutes agonizing over the right wording and picture for someone, will apply a similarly searching analysis on the cards she receives. A woman might say, ‘That’s the nicest card I’ve seen in years!’ Her male companion’s reply will be, ‘Great! Buy five. You can send one for the next five birthdays.’ Oh, dear. It doesn’t work like that.

Those silk padded A3 sized greetings cards in a box, with pink teddy bears, cute puppies, or hearts on them are bought by males, in the mistaken belief that high price will outweigh lack of appropriacy or forethought. Late-night petrol service stations do a good trade in them, as well as in those apology-gesture cut flowers, delivered daily from Holland in massive articulated trucks. Once I was looking for a CD for my sister’s birthday in a large record store, and selected her the new Norah Jones as well as a copy for myself. The sales assistant, who knew me, asked why I wanted two copies. I said one was a birthday present and he whistled in dismay, ‘You can’t give it as a birthday present. It’s in the top twenty!’ he said. He went on to explain that any CDs or DVDs that are in the Top Twenty, as gifts, look as if they’re a last minute panic buy, in a supermarket or motorway services shop. I bought a Windham Hill piano selection instead.

Man + Greetings Cards

Women buy cards for future possible use, and have a selection at home to choose from. Men buy them the day before they’re needed. I often spend time waiting in card shops, and like the other males, I gravitate to the humour section. I enjoy the ever changing selections. Just this week I laughed out loud at the retro painting of Goldilocks staring into her bowl of porridge with the speech bubble, ‘I hope it’s organic!’ Next to it was a truculent retro baby bear staring at his porridge bowl with ‘Oh, no! I wanted Shreddies!’I can cheerfully spend ten minutes looking at the jokes, surprising myself at the ever-increasing crudity. The F-word first appeared on displays several years ago. Recently, you can find both “Happy birthday, C***!’ and ‘Happy birthday, you c***!’ which would have had a shop owner arrested twenty years ago as obscene publications. (There’s an interesting little punctuation point in why the first has a capital C.)

I was in a small card shop with a superb and original collection recently, and asked how many cards in the humour selection actually sold. The shop owner smiled, ‘Oh, we sell quite a lot. The very crude ones are chosen for people in the same workplace most often, but really the purpose of the humour section is to keep men quietly occupied whilst their female companions browse and buy lots of cards.’

Read Full Post »