|Robert Benchley as most will remember him. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|English: US Postage stamp, John Greenleaf Whittier 1940 Issue,2c. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
It is gratifying, I suppose, that in Ottawa, a city I left as a resident in June of last year, some friends of mine are searching for my hat. Even though my hat does not really exist, never did exist, and is merely a prop in an elaborate, misunderstood joke I have made.
As far as jokes are concerned, I suppose I could say I belng to the old school. As a youngster I loved the written work of the very funny James Thurber, and both the written and filmic work of Robert Benchley, famous for his partnership with Dorothy Parker (she said, of an office they once shared, that if it had been any smaller it would have been adultery), and for his insouciant use of invented incidents, which, when challenged, he would reveal to have been about something else than what appeared on the surface. For example, he wrote once that everyone knows Mozart never wrote a word of music until he was 95. When challenged by an indignant reader that Mozart died when he was 25 or thereabouts, Benchley replied that of course he was talking about Grandpa Mozart, the journeyman whistler. I thought that was funny.
Or, to give another example when he wrote of his compulsion to collect stuff, any old stuff, old doors, broken dormer windows, chipped cornices off the old Post Office, until his apartment was so crowded that one day he had a visit from the Missing Persons Bureau in search of a runaway, “but all they found were three Chinese laborers.” (Incidentally, I loved Benchley’s Maxims From the Chinese, including, “too much wisdom gets on the wise man’s nerves,” something I have adopted as a sort of personal mantra, especially in recent years when I have grown suspicious of accepted wisdoms.)
I should mention here that I have long been an aficionado of British humour, and only this week when we visited an art gallery full of ugly abstract works, I had occasion to recall Tony Hancock’s classic joke when playing the role of an artist in a movie. He put a canvas on the floor, threw multicolored paints all over it, rode back and forth through the paint on his bicycle, dismounted, stood back admiring his work and said, “Aphrodite at the water’ole.” That is funny.
I remember one of Benchley’s short film features when the camera came up on a man sitting with a bright light dazzling him, Benchley, his interrogator, walking obsessively back and forth behind him in the shadow, cracking nuts, and saying, “So you won’t crack, eh, McNulty?” I thought that was funny, very funny.
One of Benchley’s great gags designed to emphasize his own insignificance, was his Benchley-Whittier correspondence, which consisted of a string of letters from Benchley to John Greenleaf Whittier, the poet, asking that he return Benchley’s hat that Benchley alleged Whittier took by mistake when they left a party at the same time. Of course, Whittier never responded, so the correspondence was one-sided.-->(He said nothing of the fact that Whittier died in 1892, forty years before their correspondence.)
This brings me on to my own imaginary hat. One of the friends I left behind in Ottawa is a young woman, living peaceably with her sterling husband, and her two small children, to whom I somehow had the luck to be considered a close friend. She, of course, is up to her ears in domestic duties, not to mention her obsession with collecting objets from garage sales, and her professional work as an adviser to the Canadian government. We have had a desultory sort of correspondence over the last year, usually accomanied by earnest pledges that in future she would pay more attention, and reply more often. At an early stage I believe I mentioned to her that I felt I was playing something like Benchley’s role in the Benchley-Whittier correspondence, and when that didn’t elicit an answer, I wrote her again, reminding her that she had not replied to my entreaty to return the hat that her husband had taken by mistake when leaving a farewell gathering before I left the city.
Of course she didn’t answer that one, so in a couple of days I sent off another mock email, thanking her for the (non-existent) message that had arrived just that day, but reminding her that none of the points she raised dealt with the question of my hat.
When again a couple of weeks passed without any word from the young mother, I again wrote thanking her for her message of instant date, expressing my relief that her children (to whom I have given the mock names Cicada and Guacamole) are in perfect health and high good spirits, but mentioning more or less in passing that I was still awaiting word of the disposition of my hat.
Eventually I did receive a reply. She had asked her husband about the hat, but he had no recollection of ever having taken a hat from that or any other party. He had asked around some of our mutual friends, who also didn’t have any memory of my hat, and all she could suggest was that I ask some others of our mutual acqauaintance.
Wow! Someone who never read Benchley, evidently. I am putting on my straight face from here on. So yesterday I sent off a letter as if I was altogether a normal person, inquiring whether she has yet sold that chipped cornice from the old Post Office that I had seen in her garage before leaving.