Last night we watched the Spielberg movie of Roald Dahl’s The BFG and crikey – how slow and portentous was that? Dahl was the zippiest and wittiest of writers. I could just imagine his impatience grinding at every scene of his that was being endlessly prolonged and distorted and stretched out of shape. His books always zoom along beautifully and if any boring interlude or explainy bits start swimming into view – he just skips. He hops over it. He never dwells and he never gets sentimental and he never bores us daft.
Anyhow, one of the most unforgivably endless sequences involved Sophie and the BFG having breakfast with the Queen. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as the Queen. She’s wonderful in everything. She’s someone whose every little quirk of reaction you’re waiting to see. But in this she’s pinioned into endless moments, standing regally by as Spielberg labours over each and every point…
The point is, what I was reminded of was being eight years old and being at Junior School. This was 1979 and my teacher was the horrendous Mrs H – the woman who once called me a fat lump in a gym class, told my mam I wasn’t as clever as I thought, never washed her hair or wore a scrap of make-up (which was sacrilege to my mam) and told me that the root of all my problems was that I didn’t even try to fit in with all the ordinary boys. Anyhow, that was Mrs H, whose idea of teaching was copying out of a book onto the board huge screeds of text for us to copy out in turn into our exercise books.
It was for Mrs H that I wrote some of my wildest and strangest stories when I was seven. When we were asked to fill three pages I would fill twenty. I would go to the end of the exercise book. I would take it home and staple further pages into the back of my book and keep my story going. How she must have hated getting stories from me.
Once I wrote her some long adventure story and I can’t remember exactly what it was about, but I myself was a lead character, and there were various talking animal companions, and I think my Big Nanna might have been involved, too. It was a big adventure and, at the very end of it, we were all invited to Buckingham Palace for a slap-up tea with the Queen, as a thank you for saving the world from whatever it was we had saved it from. Giant vampire bats who lived in the Lake District, possibly.
‘NO NO NO!’ wrote Mrs H in her savage red pen. ‘THIS IS TOO FLIPPANT! THIS IS MUCH TOO SILLY! YOU MUST NOT END YOUR STORIES WITH YOUR GOING TO HAVE A SLAP-UP TEA WITH THE QUEEN! YOU MUST WRITE MORE DOWN-TO-EARTH STORIES! YOU MUST LEARN, PAUL MAGRS, THAT LIFE IS NOT A COMIC STRIP.’
And this episode must really have stayed with her, in fact, because when it came time for our report cards, she gave me a fairly average mark for English and wrote: ‘HE MUST LEARN THAT LIFE IS NOT A COMIC STRIP. HIS STORIES CAN BE VERY FLIPPANT AND SILLY.’
Huh, I thought.
Actually, I thought much more than that, because I was mortified. I was horrified. I’d put so much into the stories I’d written that year. Were they flippant? Were they silly? Perhaps I really did read too many comic strips. I read Dracula Lives, The Broons, Planet of the Apes, TV Comic, Buster, the Beano, Spiderman, the Hulk, The Defenders, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Howard the Duck, Marvel Two-in-One…
I read books as well, but when I thought about it, the ones I really loved could be pretty flippant and silly, too. I loved Doctor Who and I loved Roald Dahl…
And I guess my stories stayed pretty flippant.
I believe the BFG came out when I was about thirteen. I missed out on reading it until a few years later… and when I did I hooted with laughter.
For ages I’d thought of Roald Dahl as my spirit animal. He was my guiding spirit of mischief. I’d watched that footage of him on Blue Peter, stomping off down his garden and sitting in the chair in his shed and getting ready to write. Sharpening his pencils and his wits and setting about doing battle with words and sense, and doing this every day. This seemed like a perfectly sensible and proper way to spend your life, and from a very early age it was the only thing I really wanted to do.
So – he was always a hero.
And there he was in 1982 – sending his heroes off to have a slap-up tea at Buckingham Palace with the Queen. He didn’t give a flying fart if that was flippant or silly or impossible. It was a beautiful vindication of sorts, and I wish that book had been around in 1978 for me to show Mrs H and I could tell her where to shove it.
And so, ever since, I’ve never really cared if people have thought of what I’ve written or said is flippant. I rather dread writing that’s too solemn or sententious. That kind of slow earnestness usually covers up deep stupidity: flippancy is a cover for the very opposite, I’ve found.
I remember getting feedback from an editor of a very literary list, rejecting a book of mine, quite a few years ago: ‘How lovely to see what Paul is writing these days. But I found this rather flippant, as opposed to serious and meaningful.’ Although it was a rejection, it made me smile. I loved being called flippant, still. I’ve come to think of it as a badge of honour.
The book that particular editor (poor thing) had been offered was one that mediated its story through pastiches of fairly low class literary modes: Gothic horror, gay erotica and working class saga novels. And her assumption that literary fiction had to flag up its own deep seriousness above everything else had blinded her to the deeply serious silliness at play.
And I was left feeling a bit hollow, after the laughter – what a shame not to see the deep silliness in stories, and how they all have to play with pastiche and flippancy at times – relying on the readers’ knowledge of stories and acknowledging that we’ve all read stories before. For, if nothing else, speeding the process of story-telling up and not boring the reader’s tits off is a very, very important thing, I think.
Because there’s nothing worse and stodgier and duller than deeply earnest fiction, moving slowly and heavily with great meaningfulness… and the thing that so many people still fail to see is that it’s far harder to be funny and light as air, and to conceal your complexity and all your deep thoughts. That’s the bit that takes the skill, I think. (No one really wants to hear your deep thoughts. They’re usually awful.)
Being flippant with style – that’s still my aim.