Quite literally, I will. I have the honour of being a judge in the humour section of the Flash Fiction Rodeo Competition over at Carrot Ranch Literary Community. There are cash prizes, apparently. Follow the link for the details, I have to admit to being a bit sketchy on the finer points. Some far better fellows than I have done all the organising, my contribution amounts to ‘send me some stuff and I will tell you what I like best.’
If you have never tried writing humour before, now could be the time to give it a go. The phrase ‘Many a true word is spoken in jest’ is absolutely spot on. Humour is a marvellous device for imparting uncomfortable truths and tackling tricky subjects with a light, easier touch than straight drama. Whilst there is a fine line between this and being trivial, laughter is a strong emotional reaction and invoking reaction in readers is the aim of any writer. The process for provoking either laughter or tears is pretty much the same; getting to the very root of what it is to be human and holding up a mirror for the audience to see it in themselves. Tragedy and comedy are interchangeable, depending on your point of view.
Perhaps the easiest form of comedy to write is parody – providing you know your subject matter well enough. In real life, humour arises naturally from everyday situations and parody is the perfect vehicle for this. It does require a wry sense of observation and knack for characterisation, but other than that, it just sort of writes itself.
Venturing into the world of the absurd can provide fertile ground for humour. Ordinary things in extraordinary circumstances is a common theme, although I like it the other way around far better. Who doesn’t a witty character sharing their observations of the world around them, or a perfectly dull protagonist trying to make sense of the bizarre? Use the characters, their scenarios and dialogue to full advantage. Be careful not to confuse humour with nonsense. Nonsense has a well-earned place in literature, but it isn’t always funny.
Talking of things that aren’t funny, I would avoid too much slap-stick and physical humour when writing prose, if I were you. It often just doesn’t come across well on the page. Humour, like anything, is subjective, so keep that in mind. I like a good fart joke as much as the next man, but a torrent (maybe not the best word) of bodily functions is going to get cringe-worthy quite quickly. Biting satirical wit is most welcome, unnecessary nastiness is not. Like sarcasm, this shows a woeful lack of depth and creative intelligence. If you find yourself resorting to clichés, you are on the wrong track.
Most of all, don’t force it. There is nothing quite so un-funny as someone trying to be funny.
In a fetid communal stairwell of anonymous council flats, I find myself wearing the other hat. The air is laced with urine and recent violence and my chest heavy as up, up, up I go. On the third floor there is a door ajar; it wasn’t the reason we came here but it is the reason we are here now.
Harper is at my backand I have never felt so safe. You could feel safe anywhere if you knew Harper had your back. The open door seems an inevitable destination and through it we go, announcing our presence in the familiar way.
The flat is pitifully bare. Dust and filth fight for purchase on the meagre possessions. Yet the place is oppressively full with a rancid stench that is worse than that of death. It is the smell of the very worst of life. And then all at once they are there – the room is full of them from floor to ceiling. There is something of life within them as they seem to squirm and writhe where they sit. The feculent haze reaches oily fingers down my throat, all the way to my stomach…
I wake with a start and find myself sliding gracelessly from Head Porter’s chair and face first onto the floor. A snooze in Head Porter’s office seemed like the most sensible course of action following the drama of the Choir Competition. No doubt he wouldn’t have been over the moon to find me here, but at least I could immediately interrogate him about his tete a tete with The Master.
“Ma’am! Are you, um, busy?”
I look up to see Porter standing over me, showing not a great deal of concern, I must say.
“Oh no! What time is it?”
“It’s half past six, ma’am,” Porter taps his watch.
“The Choir Competition!” I splutter. “Who won the Choir Competition?”
Porter narrows his eyes a little, as if I might be unbalanced.
“The whole thing had to be abandoned, ma’am. There was an outbreak of mass hysteria and The Great Chapel had to be evacuated before things turned nasty. Well, nastier, at any rate.”
“Oh my.” I put a hand to my head to steady myself. “Well, Hawkins College didn’t beat us, at least. Honour is satisfied!”
“Aye, well,” Porter sucks on his teeth like a mechanic sizing up a job. “That’s what happens when you get so many University-types together in one place. Look, there’s someone for you at the front desk, are you going to see them or what?”
“Oh!” I scramble to my feet and dust off my knees. “Who is it?”
Following Porter through to the front desk, I see the mischievous face of Headmistress smiling back at me. I try to shake off the fug of sleep and also the unnerving thought that Head Porter isn’t back yet. On closer inspection, Headmistress’ smile is not quite the beaming expression of joy it first seems. Her eyes search mine but what for, I couldn’t tell you. She clears her throat.
“Is he here?”
Something tells me that these are the very last three words I would want to hear.
“No…” I say slowly, hoping the right words will come. “But I’ve been asleep. Professor Duke and I left him with The Master, we were just leaving the Choir Competition…”
“Oh yes, the Competition, how did it go?”
Porter makes to speak but I wave him into silence with a casual flap of my hand.
“Our chaps did very nicely, actually. And we didn’t get beaten by Hawkins College, so all in all a success.” I take a breath. “You haven’t heard from Head Porter, then?”
“No and we were supposed to be going out tonight,” Headmistress sounds more concerned than annoyed. “It’s not like him not to text, at least.” Some terrible thought seems to come upon her. “That dreadful Master’s Wife wasn’t there, was she?”
She must really like him.
I carefully explain the events of the Choir Competition, such as they are. I try to downplay our part in the academic anarchy as much as possible but it is very hard to find a positive spin. It is fortunate that Headmistress is an extremely broadminded creature and is anyway more concerned about the proximity of The Master’s Wife to Head Porter.
It is a beautiful thing to witness, two people falling in love. Like a garden in springtime, becoming slowly more wondrous with every passing day. And no one deserves it more than my friend Head Porter. Last year it was Porter who found eternal happiness with the delightful Detective Sergeant Kirby, this year could see another wedding, perhaps. Next year..? Head Porter is a different man to the cold, dead-eyed pompous menace I first encountered. I can only think that unlikely adventuring does him the world of good.
Just as well, really.
A terrible crack of wood on wood rips throughout the Lodge as the front door is thrown violently against its frame, The Dean and Professor Duke thundering through. I nearly jump clean out of my skin, but at least I am properly awake now. The Dean is looking particularly grim, even for him, while the Professor isn’t even wearing his hat.
“Aha and a few! Headmistress, it’s many lucks you are here,” says the Professor, the joviality in his voice wavering only slightly. “You wouldn’t happen to have Mr. Head Porter about you, would you?”
“You haven’t seen him either?”
Professor Duke ignores my question and turns to The Dean.
“Our worst fears are, the sudden, realised.”
“Bugger it!” yells The Dean, stamping a foot. Beginning to pace, he addresses me. “You know that devious little oik I employed to investigate those sinister letters I received?”
I glance at the Professor who nods reassuringly. It appears that The Dean is still unaware that his private investigator is, in fact, his arch nemesis Hershel. Even more damningly, it was Hershel who sent the letters in the first place, of course.
“I do, Sir.”
“Well, welly, he’s turned up something… well… fascinating,” splutters the Professor. “Now, now, Mr Dean, maybe this is something we can have more delicate speaks about?”
“Now listen!” bellows The Dean, somehow managing to stamp both feet at the same time. “All of you, quiet. Deputy Head Porter. There is something you should know about the Music Professor…”
‘Redemption Road’ Fuller&Bear
In loving memory of Graham Fuller : Writer, Musician, Teacher
The face staring back at me in the bathroom mirror is non too shabby, if I do say so myself. It has taken a fair bit of effort and determination to achieve that effect, but even so. I’m still not so sure about the hair. Should I try the parting on the other side? Hmm. Looks a little odd. Brush it back. Pah. I look like a heavily made-up lion.
Although still rather hesitant about my hair, the time for deliberation is over as I hear the beep beep! of Head Porter’s elderly yet immaculate Ford Scorpio in my driveway. He has kindly offered to give me a lift, I suppose so that we might finalise our battle plans for tonight in a more discrete setting.
“Are you sure you won’t be cold in that?” says Head Porter as I swing open the passenger door. I look down at my red halter neck dress and shrug. I’m not taking a coat. Not tonight.
“I think I’ll be alright” I reply, climbing into my seat.
“Bloody hell, look at those shoes! How are you ever going to walk in them?!”
“Who d’you think you are, my father?” I snap back sarcastically, instantly regretting my turn of phrase. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean… it was a stupid thing to say.”
Head Porter just rolls his eyes at me and smiles. I may have touched a nerve, though. The journey to Old College is certainly a quiet one.
By the time we arrive, Head Porter has abandoned his quiet contemplation and is regaling me with tales of caution and ever so slightly patronising advice. I rather think he is a little jealous. We are quite early, as Head Porter needs to be in position before the arrival of first guests. I loiter with him in the cloakroom for a while, putting in place the final elements of our ‘checking in’ arrangement and idly wondering who will be the last Fellow standing at the end of the night. My money is on Chaplain, but there is no time to ponder it further. It is time to join the party.
As I enter The Wide Gallery, a relieved sigh finds its way out of my lungs. This looks fantastic. In the muted glow of candlelight the adorned Wide Gallery is somewhat striking. It is almost reminiscent of some Arthurian drama, where knights and princes would bound through the doors at any moment. However, the chirpy, up beat rhythm from the Ska band at the far end of the room distracts slightly from that general theme.
I helpfully relieve a server of one of the numerous glasses of champagne he is carrying and look around for someone serving canapés. Head Of Catering promised there would be those little tiny toad-in-the-holes that you can eat in one bite. I am going to need one or two of those.
This is just incredible. I have always had envious intentions regarding the feasts and dinners and drinks receptions. I feel that I was born to attend feasts. Alas, it was not to be, but now – look at me now! Here I am at Junior Bursar’s retirement party. I really hope he likes his party.
Soon after beginning my quest for tiny toad-in-the-hole, I come across The Dean. At first, I think he is distracted but then I notice he is intently watching the band. I see his foot tap once or twice.
“Good evening, Sir!” I raise my voice to catch his attention. “Enjoying the party?”
“Rather good, isn’t it?” He replies. “But listen – I’ve been thinking about something.”
Always excited to hear about what The Dean has been thinking about, I allow myself to be shuffled several feet away from our nearest fellow guests. He seems a good deal pleased with himself. In hushed tones, he shares with me his insights regarding our situation as he perceives it. He is convinced that those responsible for the deaths of Senior Bursar and Professor K will be in The Master’s Lodge this evening. With every Fellow and senior member of College in attendance, it stands to reason that The Vicious Circle must be among them. But who?
“Can you two not keep your hands off of each other for a single moment?!” Startled by the sudden and, until just now, silent arrival of Junior Bursar we spring apart quite involuntarily. “For goodness sake. If you must continue with your salacious activities, please at least refrain from indulging at my party. Thank you.”
“Are you… having a nice time?” I venture politely.
“I am, actually” he replies, much to my relief. “Although I am not entirely taken with those miniature sausages in batter contraptions. I’m really enjoying the band, they more than make up for it.”
Before I can say any more, Junior Bursar waves me along with him towards the direction of the nearest glass of wine. I manage to catch The Dean’s eye as I am led away. He is evidently furious. I am forced to look away when a large glass of Chateauneuf du Pape is thrust into my hand by a smiling Junior Bursar.
“Well, this isn’t too bad at all, is it Deputy Head Porter?” His tone is conversational. A rarely-used tone, in the case of Junior Bursar. “You have done a good job. Not just for tonight, either. So I want you to enjoy my party to the fullest capacity. You will not be expected in The Lodge tomorrow. Think of it as a token of thanks from me personally.”
We chink glasses and drink deeply of the thick, smooth wine, which tastes all the sweeter for having those unexpected words swimming in my ears. A ‘thank you’ from Junior Bursar. Now I really have seen it all. He leaves me fighting to keep a soppy grin from my face and heads towards a gathering of Fellows who have collected several feet behind me. It must be time to check on Head Porter. I head towards the hallway.
Our check-in passes without incident, as do those that follow. Unfortunately, although the check-ins have been a resounding success, the bits in-between have been less so. Inspired by Junior Bursar’s encouragement to let my hair down and emboldened by a general feeling of pride, I have made every effort to really get into the spirit of things. The spirits are a recent diversion, though. It’s been wine up until then. Far too much of it and scant amount of canapés to compensate. There were not nearly enough canapés and not even any crisps at all. I mean, who has a party without crisps, right? Anyway… anyway.
The realisation that I am barely a few sips away from being a complete catastrophe nags unpleasantly, somewhere in the soup that was once my brain. I very, very carefully place my glass on the table, after only three attempts.
Motor functions still operating to some degree. What can rescue me from my stupidly self-inflected malaise? There is only one thing. The saviour of alcohol induced idiocy since mankind first laid eyes on a pig. A bacon sandwich. Now. Think. Where would I find a bacon sandwich. In a room… a room with other food in it. A food room. A kitchen! The Lodge kitchen isn’t even that far. It’s just down there and along a bit.
What had I been saying earlier, about feeling so proud? And we all know what comes after pride. I stagger with as much dignity as I can muster to the kitchens, in the far reaches of The Lodge. The change of air has sharpened my senses a little, but only sufficiently enough to tell me that I am in no condition to cook. There is a good chance there might be some sort of leftovers nestling in the fridge so I continue on my way, stopping only to remove my shoes.
When I reach the kitchens, killer heels tucked clumsily under my arm, I am surprised to find the place in darkness. Catering must have gone home. My unfamiliarity with this room leaves me fumbling blindly for the light switch before realising why it is in darkness. Cold and spotless, the kitchens evidently have not been used tonight. Tonight’s delights must have been brought over from the main Kitchens.
Still squinting from the sudden brightness, I gently sway towards the fridge, vainly hoping that something delicious is just sat there waiting for me. Heaving open what feels like the heaviest door in the world, I am bathed in the happy glow of the fridge light as its treasures are revealed. This is a fine hoard of booty indeed and I think I know how pirates feel.
But then, what I feel next is something else entirely.
From somewhere near the base of my skull a heavy, immobolising thud explodes, vibrating right through to the tip of my nose. There is barely time to register the howling ache to the back of my head before I don’t feel anything at all.