Ian McMillan: Why I wanted to be a master of wit and ready repartee when I grew up

Ian McMillan.
Ian McMillan.
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Once, at secondary school when I was about 13 and my voice was not so much breaking as shattering into pieces, one of the teachers (it may have been Mr Oldham, it may have been Mr Dunsby: time mists the lens) asked one of the lads in my class (it may have been Paul Stennett, it may have been Tony Noon: time dims the fire) what he wanted to be when he grew up.

The lad replied in the voice of an American comedian: “A master of wit and quick and ready repartee” and the teacher, almost on the cusp of handing out lines, changed his mind and applauded softly, sending wisps of chalk dust into the sunlit air. Some of the details of that event may have been folded up and put in memory’s socks and pants drawer but the words, like words often do, have remained.

I remember loving the phrase and repeating it to myself on the way home. I liked the way it wasn’t just “a master of wit and ready repartee” but that “quick” added a certain something to the sentence, seeming to make it dance. I went to the library in Darfield in search of something that I could call wit and quick and ready repartee to see if I could attempt some. I asked Mrs Dove, the librarian, about repartee, being unsure what it meant (these days of course, I’d ask Mrs Google, which is in some ways a bit of a shame) and she pointed me towards a book in the humour section called The Best of SJ Perelman. “He’s an American,” she said, “and he’s a very funny writer”. She allowed her pause to lengthen like an autumn sunset and then she said: “He even makes Mr Dove laugh.” The Mr Dove line clinched it for me.

I took the book home and sat on the settee reading it; like I said earlier, time plays disappearing tricks with memory, sawing it in half and putting it back together back to front or upside down, so I can’t really remember what the SJ Perelman book looked like. Somehow I seem to think it had a yellow cover but that might be a memory of a banana in the fruit bowl that always decorated the back room I sat reading in. I don’t remember laughing too much at the pieces in the book, which were mainly short humour articles culled from American magazines like The New Yorker, but I vividly recall being dazzled by the baroque showy-offy language and wanting to write like SJ Perelman. I remember liking his metaphors and similes and images so much that I wrote them down in red Sylvine notebook with a pencil. For me they felt like the epitome of wit and quick and ready repartee.

Here’s just a couple to whet your appetite. He describes a kiss as “throbbing all the way down to my fallen arches” and a conversation that “rose from the throng, punctuated now and again by the click of expensive dentures”. Perelman is well worth hunting out in second-hand bookshops or book websites.

After all, he made Mr Dove laugh.