Clad in sackcloth and ashes and sutmongers' aprons

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The Independent Online
I HAVE a sort of apology to make. It's a grudging one, actually - one you make just off- mike, or with a handkerchief in front of your mouth. I seem to have said yesterday that the revered Irish humorist Myles na Gopaleen was guilty of theft. Yes, it's true. I said that Myles na Gopaleen (also known as Flann O'Brien or, his real name, Brian O'Nolan) had often used the idea of the interview with a cliche expert in order to pillory our unthinking use of hackneyed terms. I also said he had stolen it from Frank Sullivan, a now mostly forgotten American writer, without so much as a tip of the hat.

I don't apologise for saying that he stole it, because Frank Sullivan certinly did it first and Myles na Gopaleen certainly did it later. But I think I may have to take back the bit about 'lack of acknowledgement'. While I was writing yesterday's piece, I was feverishly searching for my copy of The Best of Myles, in order to look up Myles's cliche expert so that I could check if there was any reference to Frank Sullivan, and I couldn't find it anywhere. Milligan, Morley and Morton were all there on the humour shelf (not Jelly Roll Morton, but J B, aka Beachcomber), but no Myles.

Then, this morning, as I was searching the spare room to see if any weekend guests had left jewellery or watches under the bed, my eye fell on the sickly mustard jacket with which MacGibbon and Kee had wrapped The Best of Myles in 1968 and I leapt on it with the eagerness of a man who has been looking for a book for a few days - unusual for me, as I usually leap on a book with the hunger of a man who has been looking for it for years and years - and turned to the chapter on cliches. Here is what I read.

'The Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliche. In 356 tri-weekly parts. A unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public. A harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print. Given free with the Irish Times. Must not be sold separately or without an export licence. Copyright. Printed on repulped sutmongers' aprons. Irish labour, Irish ink. Part one. Section one. Let her out, Mike] Lights] OK, Sullivan, let her ride]

'Is man ever hurt in a motor smash? No. He sustains an injury. Does such a man ever die from his injuries? No. He succumbs to them, etc.'

Never mind the cliches - did you see the name Sullivan flash past you? Readers of the Irish Times must have been baffled. 'What's he on about now?' they must have grumbled. 'What's he mean, 'OK, Sullivan let her ride' - who's this Sullivan? Any relation to the Gilbert fellow?'

Maybe they didn't grumble. They may have been too puzzled by what a sutmonger's apron might be to notice the fleeting credit to Frank Sullivan, which I must say I had never before noticed myself. And certainly, as acknowledgements go, it is on the lightweight side, to say 'OK, Sullivan, let her ride', instead of saying 'Thanks to Frank Sullivan, from whom I stole this idea'.

But ideas are like money - only as good as the use you make of them. I have always enjoyed the invention by Private Eye of a fictional owner, Lord Gnome. The fact that Myles did exactly the same when he invented a boss called 'Sir Myles na Gopaleen', who behaved in much the same way as Lord Gnome, is neither here nor there. Myles na Gopaleen liked inventing fictitious letters from readers that suddenly invade the text. So did Beachcomber. Which one thought of it first? Neither, actually, because the French humorist Alphonse Allais was doing it in the 1890s.

Dear Mr Kington, Never mind about that - what the hell is this sutmonger, to whom the Irishman Myles na Gopaleen refers? Yours sincerely, enraged reader.

Dear Reader, I imagine he is a man who buys and sells suts.

And what the hell is a sut?

I haven't the faintest idea. Try the Irish embassy.

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