Humour is an unrewarded genre; publishers like their fiction to have gravitas, which wins awards and looks important. Humour neither ages nor travels well, but part of every bestseller list consists of those slender joke volumes you see stacked by the checkout.
There was once no getting away from Michael Green. His books were everywhere. Born in 1927, the Leicester journalist was involved with amateur dramatics and enjoyed rugby – hobbies that inspired his two guides The Art of Coarse Acting (also turned into a series of successful plays) and The Art of Coarse Rugby. This bestselling series expanded to include further sports and, in The Art of Coarse Moving, a funny account of one man's battle to sell his house. Green's biographical books included recollections of his press days, Don't Print My Name Upside Down, and the memoirs The Boy Who Shot Down an Airship and Nobody Hurt in Small Earthquake.
While Green is remembered as a fairly eccentric newspaperman – who once started the printing presses to run off his own edition only to find that he couldn't stop them – nothing in his mild-mannered volumes quite prepares you for his 1975 classic Squire Haggard's Journals, which, along with WE Bowman's The Ascent of the Rum Doodle, is a one-of-a-kind volume that requires nothing more than a little knowledge of history and a sense of humour to appreciate.
The journal began as a series of columns and is a bawdy parody of a late-18th-century gentleman's diary. Amos Haggard is a Hogarthian grotesque, chugging Madeira, horsewhipping servants, rogering prostitutes, evicting paupers and discharging his pistols at anything foreign. To avoid unpaid debts and an impending duel, he escapes to the country, embarking on an unscheduled Grand Tour that allows him to behave in an indecent fashion toward the crowned heads of Europe. In the process, he reveals the origin of the Little Englander in all his sclerotic, xenophobic horror. The diary is obsessed with demise and unusual diagnoses, including "Putrefaction of the Tripes" and "Death from Windy Spasms", and whether by accident or design, somehow manages to capture the flavour of the times more succinctly than many carefully researched serious biographies. When a writer is free to have fun with a topic, the results sometimes yield pleasant surprises.
The book has been republished by Prion, who have reissued a number of equally enjoyable humour classics.