Miles Kington: Legal humour? I think I'll take a rain check on that

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The Independent Online

The other day I was passing the shelves on which I keep all my old travel books when one of them fell down and knocked me on the head, like an unwanted commuter being extruded at the wrong station. I picked it up and looked at it. It was a book about Romney Marsh, with photos by Fay Godwin and text by Richard Ingrams. Second edition, 1981. God was clearly dropping a heavy hint that I should read the book, so I did, and I am glad I did, because it left me with a very strong impression of an interestingly empty place, and a firm conviction that one day not too long hence I should go and visit the town of Rye again.

It also taught me something about humour.

That happened when I caught sight of the spine of the book, which said simply: "Romney Marsh, Godwin & Ingrams".

What has that got to do with humour?

Well, partly that there used to be a famous footballer called Rodney Marsh. He was a wizard of the dribble, nearly as good as George Best. I saw him once playing for Queen's Park Rangers. During the match he fell to earth after a thunderous tackle from a defender who hadn't previously got anywhere near him. Marsh lay inert, possibly dead. The ref blew for a free kick. Instantly, on hearing the whistle, Rodney leapt to his feet, as if miraculously recovered, and made a deep elaborate bow to the crowd for his artistry in diving. What a round of applause he got! Even the ref smiled...

But that was not the real stirring of humour within me when I saw "Romney Marsh, Godwin & Ingrams" on that book spine. The real stirring was a small voice saying: "Hmmm sounds like a firm of lawyers". Marsh, Godwin and Ingrams. Solicitors. Ho, ho, ho. It is one of the oldest joke impulses in the book. John Mortimer's father had a favourite joke in which a line from Shakespeare's King John ("Rush forth and bind the boy") becomes a mythical legal firm called "Rushforth and Bindtheboy". Alan Coren was doing jokes in that format till he died. And if I ever open a School of Humour (and please assassinate me if I do), the first thing I shall forbid will be the firm-of-lawyers-name joke. I don't care if the Marx Brothers did invent Shyster, Flywheel and Shyster. It is forbidden.

Oh, that's another thing I shall forbid. Words like "shyster". In other words, foreign terms, especially American, often Yiddish, which sound funny but which most of the time we don't even know the meaning of. Shyster. Schmoozer. Schnorrer. Honcho. Brickbat. Shamus. Boxcar. Rain check...

I used to own a rain check. Many years ago I went to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York so long ago that I think Mickey Mantle was playing and they took half my ticket and gave me the other half back."Keep it," they said. "It's a rain check. You might need it."

"What's a rain check?" I said.

"If the game is rained off and has to be restaged, the rain check will get you in free."

It wasn't rained off, and I didn't need it, but I have still got it in a drawer somewhere, so when I say I am taking a rain check on something, believe me, I know what I am talking about...

Sorry. I seem to have started a rambling diversion there, which will never be allowed to any pupils at my non-existent School of Humour, as indeed neither will the invention of fake names for British beers.

The what?

Oh, haven't you noticed?

Anybody who writes knockabout books about the parlous state of Britain today sooner or later tries their hand at inventing hilarious names for real ales, names such as Old Vole-Strangler, Big Ferret Special, Poacher's Expectoration, Fartmeister Best Bavarian Lager...

The list is endless, as budding humorous writers say when they can't think of any more ideas.

If you have your own favourite examples of this kind of booby trap, I shall be happy to offer space in this column to them.

Or, as we say in the profession, use my readers' ideas to make up for our own lack of inspiration.

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