Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #227: It Just Slipped Out... by Russell Ash

The cliche is that the British aren't interested in sex and resolutely ignore it as much as possible. That's true about as much as any cliche is, and only to that degree if you take "British" to mean "upper-class English" and focus entirely on what they say rather than what they do.

Earthier attitudes are pretty common on the scepter'd isle, particularly among earthier persons, and despite all attempts from those upper-class sorts to hide or eliminate them. And what I have today is what purports to be an encyclopedia of one particular manifestation of that earthy attitude: the old-fashioned double entendre.

(Yes, this is a whole book of "that's what she said" jokes, compiled and somewhat explained. Since I'm American, and the examples here are overwhelmingly British, it's not quite as superfluous as that might sound: double entendres are often very culturally specific, based on specific misheard words of potentially confused usages. There are a lot of jokes about pants and fannies and particulars that the vast majority of Americans wouldn't catch.)

Anyway, that's what It Just Slipped Out... claims to be. In practice, it's largely something else, but I'll get there in a minute.

(Said the actress to the bishop.)

The British love for smutty comedy has manifested itself in many ways, from the Carry On movies to Benny Hill, but perhaps the very most British example is the naughty seaside postcard. It Just Slipped Out... is very fond of those postcards; at times it feels like a half-baked price and collecting guide to those postcards fell part during the baking, and that the usable leftovers had some other double-entendre materials packed around them to form this book.

There's a lot about postcards here: that's what I'm saying. Useful bits, like the real names and the known details of the careers of the major artists. Relevant bits, like reprinting the picture side of a number of those postcards to illustrate the various naughty sayings they used. And amazingly obscure and pointless bits, like always listing the manufacturer's serial number for those postcards and the repeated focus on which towns outlawed which postcards and why.

Did you know that British towns had local groups, mostly composed of the business classes, that were empowered to approve or disallow products from being sold in their communities, up until about 1970? (If you didn't know, it probably doesn't surprise you: it sounds like the kind of thing they'd do.) And that, according to Russell Ash, our guide through the world of smutty seaside postcards (oh, and other double-entendre materials, too, when he has some space free), those postcards were a particular focus of those groups?

You will learn much more than you ever expected about what postcards were ordered destroyed in Grimsby and which were passed in Ramsgate, and have those decisions linked directly to the number of the cards in question, which would be very useful in a book aimed at collectors of those postcards.

This is not particularly a book aimed at smutty seaside postcard collectors -- and I have to imagine that, since everything else has a price guide, those postcards probably do as well -- but it sometimes feels like it was meant to be.

If you can overlook that price-guide aspect of it, Slipped Out is an amusing book to dip into, particularly if you're from a nation with slightly different double-entendres. (Explaining jokes you already get is wearying; explaining jokes based on different cultural expectations can be enlightening.)

Ash also has a number of now-funny excerpts from older books about Head Girls named Fanny or people who keep ejaculating about how gay they are -- these are not precisely double entendres, or weren't at the time, but they're close enough for modern readers.

This is, obviously, a very frivolous book, but it's a fun one, and about an aspect of language that's the source of a lot of witty wordplay and which can also trip up unwary writers and speakers. I might wish for a double entendre encyclopedia that didn't so clearly yearn to be a catalog of seaside postcards, but this one is actually quite good at what it sets out to do.

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