There was a piece in the International Herald Tribune the other day by the American humorous writer Dave Barry, in which he parodied the whole range of Christmas shopping by making up ridiculous Christmas presents. There is nothing new about this, of course. Private Eye does it most years, with a double page spread of fake ads taking the mickey out of whatever is fashionable this year. Good heavens, I have even done it myself. But the presents that Dave Barry presented to our view did seem grotesque inventions even by American standards.
There was, for instance, a pair of "Anti-Flatulence Trousers", which I won't bring you the full details of, and a "Speaking Beer Opener". This last idea of Barry's was a bizarre parody of the American beer-drinking culture. The opener (for bottles, presumably) was programmed at certain times of the day to switch on and say: "Hey, time for a beer!". A bit like a robot version of Homer Simpson. I was just about to move on to the next item when I noticed in a bracket under the Speaking Beer Opener a note which said that this idea had kindly been sent in by a reader in the Mid West somewhere.
At first I was startled by the idea of Dave Barry using ideas sent in by readers. The whole point of being a humorous writer is to make up your own ideas, not get the readers to invent them for you. Then it suddenly, embarrassingly, dawned on me. I had got it all wrong. This wasn't an idea sent in. It was a piece of observation made by the reader. These things - the Speaking Beer Opener, the Anti-Flatulence Trousers - were not inventions. They were real, live, genuine things on sale in American shops.
Well, I am not sure if Dave Barry was doing the right thing here. What he was doing was admitting that real life can be as crazy as and sometimes crazier than the things we invent. But that's not his job. His job is to invent things which try to outdo life. All humorists have invented things which went further than reality. Some of their inventions have bordered on genius. Myles na Gopaleen, for instance, and his invention of trousers for holding Guinness or some other stout in. Are you in danger of going home on the last bus and not having a last bottle of stout to sustain you? he would address his (male) readers. What you need is a pair of our rubberised trousers which are hollow and can take several gallons of stout without leaking! If you want to take a quick sip in the bus, all you need do is take a straw, lean forward and suck it out of your trouser leg...
There's some sort of mad sense in that, as there was in the invention by the French humorist Alphonse Allais of his new improved hearse called a Necromobile. This actually cremated the late departed on board the hearse itself, and used the energy derived from the cremation to drive the hearse to the graveyard...
Again, the late Paul Jennings invented the Zizzomat, which catered for tired visitors to London who wanted a quick siesta. It was like a left luggage locker, but it was big enough to get into for a quick sleep. (He was upset later to find that the Japanese do actually have something along those lines.) He also devised a way of keeping burglars out of your home while you were away - it was a complicated series of noises, lights and recorded voices inside your house which made it seem as if a party was going on.
Well, it's fun inventing all those wild ideas, but sooner or later you do, as Dave Barry did, come up against the realisation that human beings will quite seriously invent things which the maddest humorist would think too far-fetched. Alphonse Allais realised it over 100 years ago in a series of visits to the French Patent Office, when he made several articles out of just listing people's inventions - the combination umbrella and telescope, for example, or the inflatable replica of the Venus de Milo. But if anyone cares to drop me a note on the most far-fetched Christmas presents you have seen this year, perhaps we might have a British round-up which would equal Dave Barry with his Speaking Beer Opener and his Anti-Flatulence Trousers.
The Independent Mon Dec 17 01