Reviewed by Annabel
Ranjit Bolt is well known as a translator and playwright. He came to prominence when two of his translations of French comedies by Pierre Corneille, The Liar and The Illusion, were put on stage by Jonathan Miller at the Old Vic in 1989 and 1990. I was a subscriber at the Old Vic and saw both productions. They were up against John Mortimer’s classic translation of Feydeau’s farce A Flea in Her Ear (with Jim Broadbent) in that season but I remember them being effortlessly comical in their rhyming couplets, holding their own against the other better known play. I’m sure I read that Bolt did his translating of the plays on the tube somewhere too – I may have misremembered that, but never forgot those plays – in which, at the end of The Illusion, the scenery moved away to reveal doors at the back of the stage which opened out onto the road, with cars going by.
Anyway, enough of reminiscing; suffice it to say that when an email promising a book of limericks by Bolt came – I couldn’t resist. Bolt’s limericks have brought him back from mid-life crisis, and he started off selling them in booklet form in Cambridge’s market square. They sold well, and when a publisher found them, this book was born.
After a short introduction outlining a little of the historical basis of the limerick, musing on why they make people laugh and the genesis of the book, we come to the verses themselves.
Each of the fifty or so limericks is given its own double spread of white pages – just the text – no cartoons or illustrations to distract. At first I felt short-changed by this – but then, of course, it was clear – you have to read them aloud – there’s no need for anything else. The magic of the limerick is in its metre and rhyme … and delivery. Time for an example, from the first chapter – animals:
A hungry young Spanish cicada
Was poking about in his larder
‘Ay, dios mio!’ he cried,
‘I’m quite empty inside
And in all of my larder’s there’s nada!’
I enjoyed the use of another language in that one and read it to myself in a silly Spanish accent which makes it seem even sillier – result!
The animals are followed by a group subtitled ‘Silly’ and then a small section called ‘Brains’, where this limerick made me groan:
Newton said to his helper: ‘This prism’ll
Never work with the weather so dismal,
And that apple that fell
Left a huge bruise as well
Christ Almighty my life is abysmal.’
Being able to inject a pun or contrive a rhyme (that works) in a limerick seems a brilliant way to generate more laughter, as can an intellectually precocious yet absurd situation in a stanza:
Two bugs were discussing Man’s Evil –
Whether it was acquired, or primeval –
‘I’ve no views on that head’,
The wiser one said,
‘I’m just thankful I’m only a weevil.’
You’ll have noticed that Bolt’s limericks are missing something oft associated with the form – smut! This book contains only clean ones (although there are farts and poo). In a recent interview in the Observer Bolt is quoted as saying he “prefers innocent limericks. They are just as diverting.”
There are some limericks that are just so perfect in their metre and rhyme that they just trip off the tongue without any gimmicks at all. One of my favourites in this collections is such a one:
There was once a Bengali mahout
Whose elephant gave him the boot.
And I don’t mean the sack,
But kick in the back
That propelled him as far as Beirut.
I defy anyone dipping into these rhymes to not find a verse that tickles their funny bone. There are plenty more crackers. An ideal stocking filler.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Ranjit Bolt, A Lion was Learning to Ski (Gibson Square Books, 2015). 978-1783340828, 130pp., hardback.
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