A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (1595)

Your favourite bit, aside from knowing a bank where the wild thyme blows, Methought I was enamoured of an ass, and My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones?

Mine’s got to be, apart from Oberon’s joyfully puerile And loos’d his love shaft smartly from his bow, pissed-off and indignant papa Egeus whinging about his daughter Hermia being courted by the relentless Lysander.

Sit back and enjoy wonder boy Lysander in action. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

This man has bewitch’d the bosom of my child:

Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,

And interchang’d love-tokens with my child:

Though hast by moonlight at her window sung,

With feigning voice, verses of feigning love;

And stol’n the impression of her fantasy

With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,

Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweet-meats; messengers

Of strong prevailment in unharden’d youth:

With cunning hast thou filch’d my daughter’s heart...

Get in. Ten out of ten for effort.

The bard’s best play? Perhaps so, it’s fun, funny, ardent and sexy.

And that’s not all. It has one of the most alluring lines in literature, from the gorgeous Titania:

Go with me, and I will give you fairies to attend on you.

Got to go. Tania’s in a taxi outside.

Thanks for being here.

[Illustration by Sir John Gilbert, R. A.]

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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

Better than illicit sex. Honey on toast. Chocolate and beer.

Maybe not chocolate and beer.

Sweet is the unputdownable book in which sod all happens.

…life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history and fiction.

Thriller writer Raymond Chandler said if you’re ever stuck on what happens next, get someone to walk in with a gun in their hand.

Well, Pym’s self-effacingly unattached protagonist Mildred Lathbury does it with a pot of tea.

But first, why Excellent [Women]? Try shrewd, modest, appreciative, funny.

Here she is on spaghetti, being late, eggs, and, of course, the nectar of the gods.

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite someone eating spaghetti?

She’s not wrong. Try it naked in front of a mirror. Not a good look.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she smiled, and I heard myself murmuring politely that I had arrived too early, as if it were really my fault that she was late.

So true. Like apologising when someone bumps into you, or drops one.

… I had a fresh egg to poach… delving for it in the bubbly water where the white separated from the yolk and waved about like a sea anemone.

Gripping stuff. 1952. Rationing. Egg. Fresh. Indulgent. Can make a day.

[with a distressed friend]… she stammered in a burst of tears. I was astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.

Love the astonished there. Love the irrelevantly. Don’t wave it about like that Milly, it might go off.

The tea was made now and it was as strong as it had been weak on the day Helena left him. I wondered why it was that tea could vary so, even when one followed exactly the same method of making it. Could the emotional state of the maker have something to do with it?

Yep. It’s my Oolong, doctor.

Thanks for being here.

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As You Like It by William Shakespeare (1599)

Your favourite bit, aside from the boinging Cupid have mercy!, the clichéd all the world’s a stage, and that gloomy Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything?

Mine’s got to be the frisky rat-tat-tat of love-struck cross-dresser Rosalind’s quick-fire questions.

A little game I like to play in my Lilliputian upper storey is, if she was addressing me (Cupid have mercy!), what would be my one-word answer? If I was her bosom buddy (Cupid have mercy!) Celia, that is.

Let’s remind ourselves of that randy ramble.

[Rosalind to Celia after Celia said she bumped into Rosalind’s dreamboat, Orlando…]

Alas the day! What shall I do with my doublet and hose? What did he, when thou sawest him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein went he? What makes he here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? How parted he with thee? And when shalt thou see him again? Answer me in one word.

Ten questions in fifty-seven words. Eight hes. Two hims. You can see her glaring, eyes like dinner plates. One wonders what’s on her mind, though, really.

I’m currently favouring, “Pardon.”

Thanks for being here.

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Adrian Mole The Cappuccino Years by Sue Townsend (1999)

Jeepers, need nappies for this one.

With more great lines than the movie Scarface, this book is chronically funny. Do not eat peanuts while reading.

They say that great lines can make you fart with laughter.

Well.

Anyway, let’s focus on Ms Townsend’s particular talent in plying the three big no-gos of punctuation.

Writers tend to veer away from using italics, screamers [exclamation marks], and caps because they can blow up in your face. But the maestra Townsend knows how to wield them with alacrity.

Of the narrator protagonist Adrian Mole, The Daily Telegraph said, “As a twit he stands alone.”

I concur. The Cappuccino Years finds Mole still a total loser in his thirties. Burned out relationships. Burned out marriages. Burned out house. So…

Italics? Make ’em cringe-worthy.

‘Her glossy lips were open, showing Harpic-white teeth. Her eyes said bedroom.’

Lovely. Oh, go on, let’s have another.

‘The man is a sartorial disaster area. He is the Pompeii of menswear.’

Oh, no there I go again.

Screamers? Here are some deft ones, with some potent italicisation.

Christ, she’s a wanker’s dream! She’s a dislocated wrist! She’s duvet heaven!’

Hang on a sec, need to open a window.

Caps? Be brave, and lavish and slather.

[After a long and knee-slapping all-caps rant about being a father] ‘THIS IS NOT HOW I EXPECTED MY LIFE TO TURN OUT!’

And I say: THANK YOU, Sue Townsend!!

See, us amateurs shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near ’em.

Thanks for being here.

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I, Claudius; Claudius the God and his wife Messalina by Robert Graves (both 1934)

There’s a lovely connect between these and the TV series Fawlty Towers (also known as Farty Towels).

Any idea? Go on, have a go.

A clue? Okay.

Hag.

Do you remember that wonderful, wonderful moment in Fawlty Towers where actor John Cleese’s Basil, battered, bruised and put-upon by his nagging wife Sybil [played by Prunella Scales], foresees the end of his short, miserable life?

Zoom! What was that? That was your life, mate. Oh. That was quick. Do I get another? Sorry, mate, that’s your lot.

And while we’re about it, let’s savour some of his epithets for her. Golfing puff-adder. The dragon. Toxic midget. Sabre-toothed tart. My little piranha fish. My little nest of vipers.

Rancorous, coiffured old sow.

Now let us accompany Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus to Cumae, in Campania, about, erm, one thousand nine hundred and fifty years ago.

We’re off to see the oracle, for Claudius to question Rome’s fate and his.

Before being permitted to visit… I had to sacrifice a bullock and ewe there, to Apollo and Artemis respectively.

The cavern was a terrifying place, hollowed out from solid rock: the approach steep, tortuous, pitch-black and full of bats.

Sounds like my bedroom.

I came into the inner cavern, after groping painfully on all-fours up the stairs and saw… more like an ape than a woman, sitting on a chair in a cage that hung from the ceiling, her robes red and her unblinking eyes shining red in the single red shaft of light that struck down from somewhere above. Her toothless mouth was grinning. There was a smell of death about me.

Got it yet? No?

Okay, guess this seer’s name.

Sibyl.

Well, I thought it was funny anyway.

Thanks for being here.

(Well-spotted: yes, Sybil and Sibyl – different spelling.)

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Don Quixote by Cervantes (1605 – what!?)

There’s a line in this that absolutely kills me. Gets me every time. Perfectly pitched.

Well, they’re lotsa funnies, but this one takes the galleta.

It ain’t much good in isolation, so let’s get the giggle glands going with some also-rans.

But first a run-up. For those of you who think you’ve got better things to do than loll around reading an 800-pager written four hundred years ago, I say, oh yeah, what’s that?

If you aren’t going to tell me and you’re still not going to read it, here it is in a sentence.

Old dotty duffer decides to turn knight errant (a medieval knight wandering in search of chivalrous deeds).

redressing all manner of wrongs and exposing himself to chances and dangers, by the overcoming of which he might win eternal honour and renown.

To do this he needs a horse, a henchman and a helmet.

A bit of scrabbling and compromise and he has Rocinante, a be-donkeyed serf Sancho Panza and, eventually, something to put on his head.

Once these preparations were completed, he was anxious to wait no longer before putting his ideas into effect, impelled to do this by the thought the loss the world suffered by his delay, seeing the grievances there were to redress, the wrongs to right, the injuries to amend, the abuses to correct and the debts to discharge.

What a classic set-up. The higher the highfalutin aspirations, the harder the fall down to earth with a bump.

From this height there’s nowhere to go but frustration, humiliation, embarrassment and ignominy.

And his first deed? To rescue a local farm wench he decides is a princess. Seriously, listen up. This stuff populates funny farms.

“…she is my queen and mistress; her beauty superhuman, for in her are are realised all the impossible and chimerical attributes of beauty which poets give to ladies; that her hair is gold; her forehead the Elysian fields; her eyebrows rainbows; her eyes suns; her cheeks roses; her lips coral; her teeth pearls; her neck alabaster; her breast marble; her hands ivory; she is white as snow; and those parts which modesty has veiled from human sight as such, I think and believe, that discreet reflection can extol them, but make no comparison.”

Lovely. Earth calling Don Quixote, will you come in, please.

Spanish readers all those centuries ago must’ve collapsed against walls clutching their sides, aching with laughter. They needed it. It was only a few decades after the Spanish Inquisition’s immolation, immurement and comfy chairs.

What do you mean get a move on? Okay, okay, five quick-fire ones.

“It is indeed clear to me that your visits to the wineskin require payment in sleep rather than music.”

“I say nothing about another blanket tossing, for such misfortunes are difficult to prevent, and if they come there’s nothing for it but to hunch your shoulders, hold your breath, close your eyes and let yourself go where fate and the blanket send you.”

“…either your worship is joking, or the gentleman must have rooms in his brain vacant.”

“Pray God, Sancho, I may see you dumb before I die.”

Ready? Nappy on?

Sancho says, on being bade to pick up Quixote’s famous head-piece

“It’s like nothing so much as a barber’s basin.”

Bump.

What a line. I always think of it when face-to-face with pride and pomposity, with or without a looking-glass.

Good book.

Also handy on hills if your handbrake isn’t working.

Thanks for being here.

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