John Cleese, the haughty, towering, stick-insect Brit, and one of the founders of Monty Python, has written a memoir. When asked which I prefer, Benny Hill or Monty Python, I invariably say neither, since I am not one of those people who “gets” English humor. I am, for example, more a fan of Inuit jollity, despite the preponderance of walrus jokes. Setting aside the moth-eaten quality of English humor, and recognizing that Mr. Cleese is a person of some renown, I will proceed to evaluate his memoir.
I should like to begin this review in the harsh manner of the famous Cleese creation Basil Fawlty, if he were a man of letters instead of the bristling hotelier eager to frogmarch lower-class guests from the premises.
First of all, the title of the memoir--So, Anyway…--has a lazy, tossed-off feel to it, like a phrase overheard among loafers at the greasy tables of a luncheonette. Another disagreeable aspect of the book is the author’s tendency to ramble on about his boyhood, college, and professional experiences, which, being thoroughly British, have nothing whatever to do with this reviewer’s life, and are therefore of no interest to him. I would have liked the memoir to have a more American feel to it. Finally, there is the book’s cover, which shows the top half of Mr. Cleese’s homely face (including part of his mustache, and I have never liked mustaches), and in particular his eyes, veritably popping out in a look of astonishment, though why he should be astonished is a mystery to me, since it was most certainly his idea to write the thing. All of this occurs against a white background, indicating the emptiness within. To top it off, the author’s name is writ large in letters of gold, as if he thinks himself royalty, an amusing bit of unintended irony since he made his bones by skewering the blue-blooded toffs in charge of shabby, merrie olde England.
Those are all of the reasons why you should not bother to buy Mr. Cleese’s memoir. If, however, you choose to disregard my advice, I will grudgingly admit that there are many passages in the book to delight readers who possess low standards and questionable taste.
John Cleese was born in 1939 in the small village of Uphill near the seaside of Southwestern England. Upon his debut at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Weston-super Mare, he learned the basic cruelty at the core of all humor when taunted for his surname by classmates who chanted “Chee-eese! Chee-eese!” Quickly growing to become the tallest boy in his form, and also the skinniest, he was tutored in acerbity by masters who bestowed upon him such epithets as “a prominent citizen” and “six feet of chewed string.” The author’s account of his childhood and adolescence is especially vivid, including a portrait of his rather eccentric and quintessentially British parents. His mother was gripped by so many anxieties and fears that young Cleese often joked that she suffered from “omniphobia.” Experiencing “the cosmos as one vast, limitless booby trap” forced her to concentrate only upon those matters pertaining to the avoidance of such traps, to the detriment of her general knowledge. Once, after hearing the name Mary, Queen of Scots, she asked her son who it was. When he informed her that Mary had been a Glaswegian darts champion killed in the blitz, she said, “What a shame.” Cleese senior, a “decent chap” who sold insurance, was also a worrier, mostly about finances. Although the family lived comfortably, he would purchase and then cheerfully extol “stylish Yugoslavian sports jackets, or top-class Libyan shoes, or premier quality Albanian ham that he had bought knowing full well that they would soon lose shape, or prove unwearable, or taste very odd indeed.”
Mr. Cleese’s talent for vitriolic portraiture in prose enlivens every chapter of his memoir. Early on he describes his maternal grandfather as a “red-faced bully” and “eminent coward” whose hobby was writing anonymous poison-pen letters. His summings-up of people are masterfully compact, as when he takes to task Malcom Muggeridge’s wife Kitty, who wrote that David Frost (whom Cleese greatly admires) “rose without a trace.” Cleese points out the disparity between Frost’s career and that of his critic’s, and advises the reader to “Look her up online if you have a spare twenty seconds.” But he can also be generous with praise, singling out not only Frost but others such as Peter Sellers and his Python cohorts for their talent and breadth of spirit.
Mr. Cleese has a way with an anecdote. His book is filled with amusing and instructive events he has witnessed or heard of, each rendered with the depth and detail employed by a skillful writer in full command of his craft. Here is one about Peter Cook, who, while waiting for a table at a restaurant, overhears a “big-shot local politician” upset that he, too, must wait. The politician shouts, “Do you know who I am? Do you have any idea who I am?” Cook steps forward and says, “Does anyone know who this man is? Can anyone help this poor man? He’s forgotten who he is…”
So, Anyway… succeeds primarily because of its humor. Mr. Cleese is funny on the page. One can hear()that familiar voice, known for bellowing, “Right!” followed by a dressing-down. But there is more to this book than laughs. Cleese’s remembrances are often tender. He is well-read, and despite his sniffings at the English school system, his education does him proud, as shown by the effortless weaving into his narrative of references to and stories about all kinds of people and places and things, including Auberon Waugh, H.G Wells, Psychopathia Sexualis, Lady Gaga, Venezuelan coming-of-age novels, and the history of cod fishing. I may be confusing those last four with gleanings from other books, but never mind.
Mr. Cleese is on point when musing about what it means to be a gentleman, the qualities of which include courtesy, grace, restraint, self-effacement, and other attributes “that would disqualify one forever from employment by the Daily Mail.” He cites as an example of gentlemanliness a story about “guests at royal banquets who had picked up the ‘wrong’ fork, whereupon the King had done likewise to avoid embarrassing them.” This put me in mind of our reigning culture of vulgar self-promotion and rude behaviors, and made me yearn for the creation of a worldwide Ministry of Good Manners, with Mr. Cleese in charge.
I suppose it is apparent by now that I have been compelled to doff the threadbare garments of the scowling Mr. Fawlty, and say what I really think about So, Anyway… A gentleman, Mr. Cleese would be embarrassed by continued fawning, so I will conclude forthwith by admitting that his book caused me to laugh out loud on()many occasions, and left me feeling warm and treacly in spite of my general peevishness. Well done, sir!
So, Anyway... by John Cleese
Crown Publishing Group, 2014
Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.