Samuel Johnson said that "nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last," but he was, for once, wrong, thank God, for the persistence of Sterne's novel is evidence that maybe the world is not quite as scurvy and disastrous as we might have been led to believe. It is also being adapted, in 10 parts, for the drama slot during Woman's Hour.
It is as good a reason as any for bunking off work, or sneaking a radio into the workplace if you can. Of course, a certain amount of compression is going to be involved. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is by my count 186,836 words long, give or take the odd epigram. Assuming a reasonably intelligible reading speed of 200 words per minute, it would take about 15 and a half hours to read in its entirety. Radio 4 is doing it in about two hours and 20 minutes, so a few things have to go or be squeezed together, such as the line about the scurvy and disastrous world, which gets rammed together with a later line about the hero's hardly being able to draw breath, "for an asthma I got scating against the wind in Flanders".
If you have even flicked through the pages of Tristram Shandy, you will also know that not only is the writing funny, but the very book itself is, with typographical flourishes and gags that demonstrate an unsurpassable satiric spirit. At time of going to press I have not heard how they propose to adapt the flourish of the corporal's stick that indicates a man's liberty, the black page which mark's parson Yorick's death, or indeed Chapters 18 and 19 of Volume 9, which contain nothing at all. The closing asterisks of the line "My sister, I dare say, added he, does not care to let a man come so near her ****" are represented by a swanee whistle, but then later on we learn that the word alluded to is "arse". I am not so sure that Sterne ever used the word himself; and anyway, surely, what he meant to say was ****.
Still, Shandy is adaptable - this newspaper's very own Martin Rowson turned it into one of the great cartoon books of all time in 1996. I do not, though, envy the adaptor, Graham White, but the director, Mary Peate, has been having a lot of fun (it is good to be reminded from time to time that the squeaking of bedsprings during sexual congress is, to the refined mind, funnier even than the raspberry), as have the cast. Neil Dudgeon, who plays the narrator, has just the right tone of compelling pedantry.
I hope you caught Andy Kershaw's show on Radio 3 last Sunday. He began by playing two Gang of Four tracks in a row - "Anthrax" ("love will get you like a case of anthrax/and that's something I don't want to catch"; you could see the Go4 were big softies, really) and "At Home He's a Tourist", the song they refused to play on Top of the Pops because they were asked to modify the word "rubbers" to "rubbish". Kershaw enthused wildly about the group's comeback gig at Leeds University; he then played a new but timeless dub track using vocals by the late Prince Far I. In other words, Kershaw very convincingly created the impression that it was 1979 all over again, and that he was standing in for Peelie, who would be back next week after one of his well-earned breaks. I thought I had stopped being upset about Peel's death but it appears I was wrong. For those who still find the situation unendurable, you could do worse than stop by Kershaw once in a while.