The comedy book index, part 6: Francis Wheen’s Mumbo-Jumbo and Strange Days Indeed

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Hello again, dear reader. Is the world driving you round the bend yet? (If not, why the hell not?) I’m currently finding much regular comfort in switching off and disappearing into a good book when the voices get too much. Two more fine indexes to blog about this month, from books by Francis Wheen which review the seeds of much of the utter mess we’re in now. I have enjoyed diving into these but haven’t known whether to laugh or cry at some of the content; it’s both absurd and terrifying. The indexes well reflect the tone of their books, as indeed they should.

Francis Wheen is a British author and journalist and current deputy editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye – one of my favourite periodicals since my father introduced me to it in my teens. We have never written in to cancel our subscriptions.

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Harper Perennial, 2004, 368 pages, index 8 pages – henceforth Mumbo-Jumbo) covers the period from 1979 into the first decade of the 21st century: the age of the ‘sleep of reason’ and the eventual triumph of ‘mumbo-jumbo’ (cults, quackery, emotional hysteria, etc.).

Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia (Fourth Estate, 2009, 344 pages, index 10 pages – henceforth Strange Days) was published five years later and focuses on the politics and social change of the 1970s: ‘the age of paranoia, crisis and deluded clothing choices’ (from its cover blurb).

Both books are extremely funny and it naturally pleases me that their indexes are too. Francis Wheen kindly confirmed for me via Twitter that he wrote both of these indexes himself. The indexing humour mostly derives from the subheading wording, often taken directly from the corresponding passages in the books. There is a huge amount I could cover here but I’ll just share a few selected and themed highlights.

Politics

There are many references to political figures in the two indexes. Here are a few choice examples from the UK, first from Mumbo-Jumbo:

  • Blair, Cherie: flirtations with New Age spirituality, 129, 131–2; rebirthing ceremony, 130
  • Blair, Tony: […] claims descent from Abraham, 165; […] emotional guy, 205, 207, 210, 212; […] takes mud-bath in Mexico, 130–1; venerates Princess Diana, 201–2, 212–13
  • Callaghan, James: […] swims with air stewardesses, x
  • New Labour: gimmickry and gobbledegook, 57–8, 221–2; ideological somersaults, 218–9, 272
  • Thatcher, Margaret: […] enjoys ‘electric baths’, 129; […] revives Victorian values, 8, 22–3; sides with good against evil, 26–9; supports terrorism, 180–2; thinks the unthinkable, 38–9

And, further back, from Strange Days:

  • Benn, Tony: […] visits fortune teller, 56; wild surmises, 219; false rumours of orgies, 222
  • Heath, Edward: […] as Empress of Blandings, 38; meanness of, 42, 45; corpulence of, 48; speaks French badly, 204; grumpiness of, 205; as obstinate jackass, 208
  • Straw, Jack: skulduggery of, 210
  • Wilson, Harold: […] as big fat spider, 9, 269, 270; […] sees invisible powers, 218; breaks into Marcia’s garage, 219; as Hercule Poirot, 247

I especially like the Edward Heath one here. If you aren’t familiar with the Empress of Blandings, do look her up. She’s a beaut. I should also perhaps provide a little more context on former prime minister Harold Wilson being a big fat spider but I prefer to leave that as it is.

The Strange Days index also contains many other intriguing entries regarding Baroness Falkender – the ‘Marcia’ above – who was Wilson’s private and political secretary:

  • Donoughue, Bernard: […] endures Marcia’s tantrums, 211–15, 220; contemplates emigration, 217, 248
  • Falkender, Baroness (Marcia Williams): squabbles and screeches, 210–16; hates whitebait, 211, 215; takes sedatives, 215, 220; fear of military coup, 218; fear of orgies, 222, 270
  • Field, Tony (Lady Falkender’s brother), 212; breaks into Marcia’s garage, 219
  • Haines, Joe: […] endures Marcia’s tantrums, 211, 213–14; unwilling to murder her, 215–16

Quite a woman – 85 years old at the time of writing and still a Labour member of the House of Lords. [Update: Baroness Falkender died in 2019.]

American politics is also richly featured in both books. Strange Days has much cheerfully terrifying content about former president Richard Nixon and his ilk:

  • Colson, Charles (‘Chuck’): Nixon’s chief ass-kicker, 96–7, 98 […]; proposes firebombing, 109
  • Haldeman, H.R. (‘Bob’): […] conversations with Nixon, 9, 23, 27, 30 […]; gobbledygook, 11; ‘weirdest day so far’, 29; White House taping system, 35, 37, 38, 118; fellow of infinite jest, 292
  • Hoover, J. Edgar: dealings with Nixon, 35, 36, 98, 106; mistrusted by Norman Mailer, 168; spies on Mailer, 168, 169–70; worships mothers, 171; hates hippies, 172; hates Martin Luther King, 173
  • Nixon, President Richard M.: […] swearing, 6, 23, 35; rage against Jews, 9, 30, 36 […]; and other enemies, 10, 29, 96–8 […]; bugs himself, 34–5, 37–9, 117–20, 164; understands madman theory, 104–6; resigns, 119, 176, 273, 294; […] visits Soviet Union, 163; maddened tyrant, 293

How times change. I’ll just leave this here.

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Things have not hugely improved in Mumbo-Jumbo-era US politics:

  • Buchanan, Pat: blames Japan, 169; blames Jews, 162; blames Salman Rushdie, 163
  • Bush, George H. W.: […] joins travelling show, 55; mocks voodoo economics, 19
  • Bush, George W.: […] thanks Christ, 108; unsure about enemies, 167; unsure about evolution, 112, 113
  • Clinton, Bill: empathy junkie, 194, 197–9; finds Third Way, 225, 227; named as Antichrist, 151
  • Clinton, Hillary: admires Deepak Chopra, 47; likened to Mozart and Joan of Arc, 54; recommends ‘magic pendant’, 129
  • Gore, Al: […] toe-curling motto, 106
  • Reagan, Ronald: […] Star Wars, 97, 172; UFOs, 138; voodoo economics, 18, 30, 38; wartime fantasies, 20
  • Trump, Donald: 20, 42, 44

Look who just snuck in at the end there. Can we all just agree not to include him in future indexes?

Two final global political examples from the Strange Days index:

  • Amin, President Idi: […] likened to Pol Pot, 144; likened to Lady Falkender, 216; prehistoric monster, 226, 236; splendid rugger player, 231; comic figure, 234–6; lord of all the beasts and fishes, 238; mass-murderer, 243–4
  • Jiang Qing (Madame Mao): morbidly sensitive, 9, 153, 154; falls off lavatory, 155

Authors and theorists

Much of Mumbo-Jumbo includes discussion of various authors and theorists either behind or against the spread of said mumbo-jumbo:

  • Dawkins, Richard: demands astrologers be jailed, 126–7; disses The X-Files, 140
  • de Bono, Edward: first original thinker since Plato, 58; praises Harry Helmsley and Robert Maxwell, 59
  • Deleuze, Gilles: incomprehensibility of, 87–8

[Try indexing a book on him. I did. Once.]

  • Derrida, Jacques, 79, 92, 96; annoyed by Alan Sokal, 93–4; barred by Cambridge, 80; feted by Oxford, 80–1
  • Foucault, Michel, 3, 6, 79; enraptured by Khomeini, 84–5, 288; swoons over Deleuze, 88
  • Irigaray, Luce: on sexism of speed of light, 88, 103
  • Kristeva, Julia: admits mathematical ignorance, 94; defends anti-semitism, 96
  • Lacan, Jacques: 79, 91–2; mistakes his penis for a square root, 88–9
  • Pirie, Madsen: on edge of lunacy, 38
  • Sokal, Alan, 100: distressed by tyranny of twaddle, 89; fools post-modernists, 90–5

If you’ve never heard of the Sokal hoax, it’s well worth a read, especially if you’ve wrestled with a particularly impenetrable postmodern text recently. The horror…

ETs and UFOs

Even stranger things are afoot too, with frequent references to aliens, UFOs and various otherworldly oddities in the Strange Days index:

  • Backster, Cleve: intimate with plants, 188
  • Geller, Uri: bends cutlery, 186, 188–90; meets extra-terrestrials, 191–2, 193; turns into a hawk, 194–5
  • Hashimoto, Ken: has performing cactus, 188
  • Randi, James (‘The Amazing’), 190–1

And also in Mumbo-Jumbo:

  • Clancarty, Earl of: finds civilisation beneath earth’s crust, 136
  • Daily Mail: appetite for mystical gibberish, 152–5
  • Hill-Norton, Lord: quest for little green men, 136–7, 142
  • Horsley, Air-Marshal Sir Peter: talks to visitor from another planet, 137; too busy to mention it, 138
  • Philip, Prince: enjoys Flying Saucer Review, 136; praised by extra-terrestrials, 137–8

Royalty

Other members of royalty also feature in the Mumbo-Jumbo index, in relation to the death of Diana and its aftermath:

  • Diana, Princess of Wales: death not predicted by seers, 154; devotion to reflexology, 135; dies after lunching with Deepak Chopra, 47; exemplar of thin-air business, 271–2; inspires intense emotion, 205–9; therapy heroine, 199–204
  • Elizabeth II, Queen: accused of cocaine-smuggling, 149; carries homeopathic remedies, 135; urged to emote, 204

Other figures of note

Some nicely balanced subheading wording in Mumbo-Jumbo reflects the eventual comeuppance of several public figures of the time:

  • Aitken, Jonathan: admires risk-takers, 59; goes to jail, 60
  • Boesky, Ivan: admires greed, 30; goes to jail, 31, 37
  • Merton, Robert: says markets aren’t too volatile, 272; loses fortune because of market volatility, 273
  • Milken, Michael: admires Deepak Chopra, 47; friend of Enron chairman, 282; pioneers junk bonds, 30; goes to jail, 31
  • Ronson, Gerald: eulogised by Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Robinson, 59; goes to jail, 60

Some entertaining mentions of other popular figures too in Mumbo-Jumbo:

  • Moore, Demi: hopes to live for 130 years, 47
  • Presley, Elvis: likened to Enron, 274; not alive, 100

And in Strange Days:

  • Moore, Roger: regrettable lapels, 2
  • Morgenthau, Hans: mistaken for Robert, 97
  • Morgenthau, Robert: not Hans, 97
  • Redgrave, Corin: introduces sister to Healy, 53
  • Redgrave, Vanessa: succumbs, 53
  • Reynolds, Burt: regrettable toupee, 2

A rather rude bear

The Oz magazine obscenity trial in 1971 produces some of the funniest entries in the Strange Days index. The Oz editors had invited their under-18 readers, including Charles Shaar Murray, to edit Oz issue 28 (the ‘Schoolkids’ issue), with perhaps predictable results. One of the offending items on trial was – ahem – ‘a comic strip in which Rupert the Bear plunged his erect penis into a naked granny’ (p.123). (A Google-able image, should you feel inclined.) These images were studied in the trial for ‘three full weeks’. Defence witnesses were questioned on the size of said organ and the supposed age of the bear: ‘He’s a young bear, isn’t he? He goes to school; that’s right, isn’t it?’ (p.127). Wheen includes some of this nonsense in the index:

  • de Bono, Edward: no expert on bear’s penis, 126
  • Rupert Bear: sex with granny, 123; size of organ, 126; age of, 127
  • Schofield, Michael: no expert on bear’s age, 127

At the same trial, jazz singer George Melly takes great delight in attempting to define cunnilingus to Judge Michael Argyle (or ‘cunnilinctus’, as the judge puts it). All of Melly’s suggested translations are included in the index as see cross-references:

  • blowing: see cunnilingus
  • cunnilinctus: see cunnilingus
  • cunnilingus: unknown to Judge Argyle, 124, 125
  • fellatio: unknown to Judge Argyle, 124
  • gobbling: see cunnilingus
  • going down: see cunnilingus
  • sucking: see cunnilingus
  • yodelling in the canyon: see cunnilingus

As Wheen puts it, ‘Argyle looked like a man who had just found a dildo in his wig’.

A few lords also get similar treatment in the index:

  • Longford, Lord: horrified by scanty black corset, 128
  • Widgery, Lord: whitewashes Bloody Sunday, 44; recoils from porn, 133

Another notable entry from this chapter relates to a different obscenity trial on The Little Red Schoolbook, a manual by schoolteachers which offered advice on various matters such as alcohol, drugs and sex. One of the witnesses, a former headmistress, offered her expert evidence:

  • Manners, Elizabeth: deplores masturbation, 124; admits trying it, 125

The Little Red Schoolbook was pulped soon after.

Odds, sods and gods

Just a few final entries here that don’t quite fit anywhere else but, hey, I like ’em. Some Strange Days ones:

  • fascist insect, the, 77
  • wash, reluctance to: of Lin Biao, 152–53; of Mao, 153; of American radicals, 171; of author, 272

From Mumbo-Jumbo:

  • elephants: dancing, 52; theorising, 76
  • tycoons, 29: as heroes, 59, 277–8; sexiness of, 40; superstitions of, 56; wearing socks in bed, 60

And I’ll just let this Mumbo-Jumbo one speak for itself:

dav

Critique

There is a huge amount of great comedic material in these indexes. I’ve already grudgingly had to be quite selective with what I have included here.

Both function perfectly well as working indexes. Things are to be found where they say they are. Subentries in the Strange Days index are given in page order, rather than the alphabetical order that would normally be employed by a professional indexer, but there aren’t many entries with enough subentries for this to cause a particular problem with locating anything. The Mumbo-Jumbo subentries are in alphabetical order.

There are many serious and sad matters covered in both books (e.g. bombings, murders, terrorism and wars) and these are just included as non-embellished headings and page numbers in the indexes. To my eyes, when the humour appears, it seems pretty appropriately targeted, or perhaps it’s just that the targets are so well dispersed. As the author states, in Mumbo-Jumbo, he had written ‘a book which included something to offend pretty much everybody’.

As an interesting if bizarre footnote, Francis Wheen told me via Twitter that the US publisher (who was a Brit) commissioned a completely new index for Mumbo-Jumbo, fearing that no one would take the book seriously unless the index was ‘stony-faced’.

Wheen tweet

What a damn shame. How much more fun is an index with entertaining subheadings? How much more likely is an interested reader to use the index to look up intriguing entries? Would US readers really object to such an index? (Suggested answers welcome.)

As indexers, we are often advised in training – yes, we do have training – not to include our opinion of the text in our index wording. (There are many fine historical examples where this rule has been deliberately broken to good effect though, adding an indexer’s snark to an author’s text – see for example Dennis Duncan on satirical and ‘weaponised’ indexes here.)

Indexes should generally however reflect the tone of the text and the author. Francis Wheen’s indexes for these two books do exactly that. They are funny indexes to funny texts and this is one shining example of an author who can index well. You can see more of his work on his website Golden Duck here.

More indexing strangeness again soon. Trebles all round!

An amended version of this blog post, plus an email Q&A interview I had with Francis Wheen, was subsequently published as ‘Strange indexes indeed: the wit of Francis Wheen as author–indexer’ in The Indexer journal, June 2018, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 42–48, available here: https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/journals/article/28805


ClarkeyFB2

Paula Clarke Bain is a professional book indexer and editor. She likes comedy, books and indexes and really likes comedy book indexes. See more at her website at baindex.org or on Twitter @PC_Bain.


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