The Columnist


         It is not often that you can remember exactly where and when you first bought a book, but I have a very strong memory of starting to browse through Catch-22, and buying a copy almost immediately, in an upstairs bookshop in the Rows, in Chester, in the early 1960s, when I was still a student.
         There were two reasons for remembering this. One was the opening lines of the book ("It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain, he fell desperately in love with him…” ) which had me hooked immediately, as it has hooked many other people.
         The other was the fact that I paid for the book with a Scottish pound note. (I had just been to Scotland and my wallet was stuffed with Scottish currency.) Scottish pound notes did not look very much like English pound notes, but some of them did look very much like English five pound notes. In those days very few people south of the border had ever seen a Scottish pound note, and the girl in the bookshop automatically assumed I was handing her an English fiver, so I was not entirely surprised when I got a copy of Catch-22 AND over four English pounds change from my one Scottish pound note.
         It was a fitting introduction to Catch-22, a book which was all about upside down and back-to-front logic.
         Also a book which portrayed war as a horrible social disease, which made people you had never met try very hard to kill you.
         A book which showed ordinary American guys over here in Europe flying big bombers and dropping bombs on people when they would much rather have been back at home not dropping bombs on anyone at all.
         But I didn't notice any of that the first time through. The only thing I noticed was that it was hysterically funny.
         This was the first time I had read a book which took as its starting point the idea that war was crazy, that we shouldn't be doing it and that if we were, the only thing to do was try and get out of it by feigning ill, going mad, getting sent home or, if the worst came to the worst, being too badly hurt to go on fighting. I hadn't read a book before in which the object of going out on bombing missions was to score enough missions so that you never had to do another mission, and where the official target number of missions kept increasing, just out of reach.  It was Kafka rewritten by the Marx Brothers.
         I remember being especially struck by the moment when Yossarian's dreams are being analysed by the psychiatrist. He is having dreams about fish. Hmmm, says the psychiatrist - these are really dreams about sex. But you are trying to conceal from yourself the fact that you are dreaming about sex. Later, Yossarian has dreams about sex. Ah! says the psychiatrist. More dreams abut sex! No, says Yossarian - these are dreams about fish. But obviously my mind won't admit it…
         I had never read a novel before in which this sort of slapstick about serious stuff happened.
         Nor had I read a novel in which war was not taken seriously. You can't imagine, now, how my post-war generation was bombarded with war books. Battle of Britain books. Prisoner of war escape books. French resistance books. Convoy books (The Cruel Sea). Nazi atrocity books, Burmese railway books, daredevil missions books… And however much they all differed, however light-hearted they could be on occasion, (especially the prisoner of war escape books) they all took the war terribly seriously. We read the lives of the war heroes as zealously as Catholics are fed the lives of the saints.
         Then along came Catch-22, in which nobody was a hero, and if he was, he was ridiculed for it, and in which occasionally Americans would bomb their own side if the other side paid them to do it. There had never been a war book like this before. (had not read The Good Soldier Schweik at the time. To be honest, I still haven't.) And although most people went on taking war very seriously indeed, a lot of other people saw the light and started producing things like M*A*S*H and Sergeant Bilko and Dad's Army, and I don't think I ever read another serious war book again.
         Dad's Army, of course, could never have been done by Americans. It was quirky and silly and full of class sniping. Catch-22 may be zany and crazy, but it is never silly. Again, although Spike Milligan's volumes of war memoirs are closer to Joseph Heller, in that they reflect the lunacy into which war drags us, they represent one man's lunacy rather than general lunacy, as Heller does.
         I suppose that if you are looking for descendants of Catch-22, we might include the Flashman books written by George Macdonald Fraser from the late 1960s onwards, in which all the normal standards of decency, bravery, honour and chivalry are stood on their head, so that cowardice and treachery become the cheerful norm. But Macdonald Fraser was batting on an easy wicket. It is always fun to go among the landmarks of British history and rewrite them mischievously, as has gleefully been done by everyone from Sellars and Yeatman (1066 And All That) to the creators of Blackadder, who is another version of Flashman.
         Where they all played safe was in avoiding recent, living history. Flashman took the mickey out of the Victorian era. Blackadder went up as far as the trenches of 1918. No further. What Joseph Heller did that was quite, quite different was to take one part of the living story of World War II - stuff that would be familiar to many people living in the same street as him - and retell it as a gruesomely knockabout history, a shockingly black, shockingly funny story, in which all the enemies and bad guys are on the same side as you.
         Without Catch-22 there would have been no Dr Strangelove.
         Without Dr Strangelove there would have been no…
         Well, I can't actually think of anything else.
         Things like Catch-22 come along very rarely.
         Very, very rarely.
         And yes, if you are interested, I did give the four pounds change back to the salesgirl in Chester forty years ago and say: ‘It wasn't a fiver, actually, it was a Scottish pound note’, but whether I did it because I was honest or was just showing off, I cannot now remember.

Folio Society

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