In the 1960s, at a time when I took myself more seriously, I went to work for the Observer in what I mistakenly believed was a rather important position. One afternoon, soon after my arrival, a stranger walked into the office I shared with two other people. He was neat, quite short and stocky, and, I seem to remember, he wore a pale tweed jacket. He had a pleasant light tenor voice and the air, perhaps, of a popular geography master at a prep school.
The stranger strolled nonchalantly round the small room dictating letters to the person I regarded as ‘my’ secretary. ‘Dear Mrs Coleridge, Thank you for your letter. I must confess I have never met a man who earned his living as a flange wrangler, but it sounds a most interesting job . . . Dear Mr Clifton, It was so kind of you to send me your father’s copy of the Swahili phrase-book, which I shall always treasure . . . Dear G. W. Hurst, I very much enjoyed your observations about Japanese waltzing mice . . .’
This man, I soon discovered, was Paul Jennings, creator of the ‘Oddly Enough’ column, up in town from his home in East Bergholt and replying to his fan mail. (This could be irritating for any self-important young journalist to listen to, particularly for one with no fans of his own.) The performance was repeated every two or three weeks; he would arrive, dictate a few politely surreal letters, click his briefcase shut, give a jovial wave and leave.
Of course, I made up those letters, but they reflect the flavour of ‘Oddly Enough’ and, in fact, on two or three occasions over the years he did write about the phenomenon of Japanese waltzing mice. The humour of his column, which appeared in the Observer from 1949 until 1966, was based on whimsy and wordplay. Whimsy has come to be despised by smart modern humorists, but in Jennings it came fortified with a sharp intelligence and a rich imagination.
A few years later, I found my
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