Funny Side of the Street

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When I was at the grammar school, I belonged to a small coterie of young smartyboots whose parents took the Observer. Every Monday morning we would gather to discuss the latest ‘Oddly Enough’ column by Paul Jennings, a whimsical humorist whose world view (largely derived from sheer bafflement at the bizarreness around him) we found much to our taste.

He would meditate upon the eccentricities of Rules and Regulations, or odd signs half-glimpsed in shop windows and the darker reaches of railway stations, or the hidden meanings of English place names, as in: ‘Bovey Tracey, headstrong: “None of your bovey tracey ways here, miss”.’ (A notion that was taken up by Douglas Adams in The Meaning of Liff thirty years later without, as far as I could see, any acknowledgement.) Jennings is currently out of print and out of fashion, though he seems to be rediscovered every so often; his slim volumes of reprinted columns, all with ‘Oddly’ in the title, are not too hard to come by, however. I revisit my complete collection often.

At some point in the early 1960s Jennings was supplanted in the Observer by someone altogether more bracing: Michael Frayn. It was about the time of That Was the Week That Was and Private Eye, and though as far as I know he never had anything to do with either of them, Frayn was absolutely in tune with the Zeitgeist; in fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I first came across the word ‘Zeitgeist’ in one of his columns, probably in the guise of a German art critic called Ludwig von Zeitgeist.

Unlike Jennings, Frayn had a political edge, and he had characters who reappeared regularly. Our favourites included Rollo Swavely, the PR man; Christopher Smoothe MP, Minister of Chance and Speculation; Sir Gwatkin Rockfast, Vice-Chancellor of Twicester University; and Ngodli Nvective, Prime Minister of Nghanyika. Our Monday morning discussions were informed by the realization that if

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About the contributor

Mike Petty’s experience of ‘Fleet Street’ is limited to publishing many books by journalists and the occasional appearance in gossip columns because of a temporary association with someone more famous than himself. He now works in Cornwall, as Publishing Manager for the Eden Project.

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