There's nothing better than a good old-fashioned cliche

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY I wrote a piece that used the idea of the cliche expert. It's a simple, but nice, idea. You pretend that cliches are an academic branch of study, that you have got hold of a cliche expert to interview, and you get dialogue such as this: Q. When it comes to the spreading of gossip, what has it? A. Rumour has it. Q. In what strange position is rumour passed on? A. Between you, me and the gatepost. Q. What is the only process that can stop a

rumour? A. The one known as 'scotching'.

And so on and so on. It's not only a nice idea but an old one, as people remind me whenever I use it. 'You may think you invented this cliche expert interview idea,' they say, especially if Irish, 'but actually Myles na Gopaleen was using it 30 years ago, so put that in your pipe and smoke it]' (Q. In what popular tobacconist's item are we asked to put our bumptious statements? A. Our pipe. Q. And what process of incineration will then take place? etc.)

I used to wince at this accusation, as there was a grain of truth in it, though only to the extent that Myles na Gopaleen did use the cliche expert interview idea, and I borrowed it from him.

And then I discovered something that restored my happiness. Myles na Gopaleen had stolen the idea from someone else. He had taken it with or without acknowledgement - almost certainly without - from Frank Sullivan, an American writer who in the Thirties invented a cliche expert called Mr Arbuthnot, and wrote at least one classic piece called 'The Cliche Expert Testifies on Love'. If you have never sampled it, here (I almost said, 'to whet your appetite') is a small extract. A. There is another side to sex. Q. There is? What side? A. The seamy side. There are, you know, men who are wolves in sheep's clothing, and there are, alas, lovely women who stoop to folly. Q. My goodness] Describe these men you speak of, please. A. They are fiends in human form, who would rob a woman of her most priceless possession. Q. What is that? A. Her honour. Q. How do they rob her? A. By making improper advances. Q. What does a woman do when a snake in the grass tries to rob her of her honour? A. She defends it. Q. How? A. By repulsing his advances and scorning his embraces. Q. How does she do that? A. By saying: 'Sir, I believe that you forget yourself', or 'I'll kindly thank you to remember I'm a lady'. Q. Suppose she doesn't say any of these things? A. In that case, she takes the first false step down the primrose path . . .

Excellent stuff. I wonder who Frank Sullivan nicked the idea from, and who HE nicked it from.

Yes, ideas in humour come back again and again, as do humorous fashions. When I first joined Punch in the Sixties, the writer who had most influenced me was S J Perelman - I spent a few months falling under his spell and much too long getting out from under it again. Perelman's writing, I would guess, influences nobody these days, but I have just made the most extraordinary discovery: his cartoons, of all things, were way ahead of the game.

Some modern cartoons, as I have suggested before, are not really cartoons at all but artificial drawings with arch titles. I always thought that Glen Baxter was the father of this school, but I have just come across a collection of Perelman's early material called That Old Gang O' Mine (William Morrow and Co, NY), and it turns out that he was doing Glen Baxter material back in the Twenties.

I don't think Perelman kept up cartooning much beyond 1930, but before then he was turning out drawings with captions such as 'Please, Daddy, Don't Go Out Tonight] Begged The Gunman's Children', 'I Consider Fisticuffs Brutal, Announced Cabot Flatly' and 'The Score is Forty-Love Said Frank Meaningfully'. The captions have the stage-direction quality of Glen Baxter. Mark you, they aren't that good, but it's nice to know that things do come in cycles. To put it another way . . . Q. Under what heavenly orb is there nothing new? A. The sun.